Copyright and media in the new millennium

At the end of October, the US Library of Congress (Copyright Office) published the results of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) comments process. To the surprise of few, the vast majority of submitted comments were rejected and the act was left essentially unchanged. The Library prefers to let Congress and the courts deal with any changes.

To those who may not be following the current battles, the DMCA was enacted by the US Congress in 1998, and has been in the process of being ratified by individual states since. The DMCA is an attempt to give better control of copyright material to the copyright holders (publishers) in this age of perfect digital copies.

The DMCA basically says that when you buy a copy of a copyrighted product (DVD movie, a CD, etc.) you are not allowed to try to reverse engineer any copy or access protection on it. It is also illegal to distribute any device (hardware or software) which removes the protections. Legally you’re still allowed to make a backup copy under the existing copyright laws’ “fair use” provision, but since the tools needed to make the backups are illegal, in reality even this right has now been revoked.

A manifestation of the panic the music and movie industries are currently feeling because of the ease of copying and sharing high quality music and movies now provided by modern computers and the Internet, the DMCA has US civil liberties and consumer rights organizations up in arms. Even the act’s original backer, Senator Orin Hatch, is beginning to question if it goes too far.

But don’t think this insanity is limited to the US — the DMCA was created as a result of an international framework; the World Intellectual Property Organization, specifically the WIPO Copyright Treaty and the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty. As a result, every country involved (175 as of September) is obligated to enact similar laws.

Canada has already implemented some of this, including an ill-planned levy against all recording media. Although passed as a law, the actual implementation is no where to be seen. If (when) it is enforced though, everyone buying a blank cassette tape or CDR will be charged an extra $1 or so. This will be given to the poor, starving media companies, as obviously the purchaser of the blank media was planning to pirate their copyrighted material.

The presumption of guilt. It’s enough to drive ordinarily honest individuals to piracy. “If I’m being forced to pay for it, I’m going to do it.” was a common thread heard during discussions on the matter when the Canadian law was being passed.

Ironically, there are many who feel that the current ability for anyone to download and “evaluate” MP3s of commercial music content can actually be shown to increase CD sales. Further, the Genie’s out of the bottle; there are already too many of the newly illegal tools out on the web (some from out-of-jurisdiction sites) to be able to really prevent their redistribution.

But most of the players in the entertainment industry don’t seem to be able to see this. They’re desperate to maintain the status quo, even with “disruptive technologies” being introduced all around them every quarter. Instead of adapting to the technology, they lobby for laws making it illegal to use it instead.

Meanwhile, MPEG4 is now able to compress a full length, full screen movie down to fit on a standard CD-ROM. A new, free (as in speech) compression algorithm is being finished called Ogg Vorbis which compresses audio as well as MPEG3, but with much better reproduction of the sound. This comes just as patent holders of the MPEG3 algorithm plan to start charging royalties for encoders and players.

I’m betting on the technology to win out. The Internet adapts dynamically, routing around censorship almost as quickly as it does around a network connection which is down. It’s not going to be overnight, but no-one holds back a tsunami. They may die trying, though.

Published in the Victoria Business Examiner.