A tollbooth on your desk

Digital content is a remarkable development, unprecedented in human history. Once created, it can be copied any number of times with no loss of quality, and at very little cost. With today’s high-speed computer networks, copies can be sent across the globe quickly and easily. Users love this; producers, on the other hand, are terrified.

For several years now, owners of Intellectual Property (IP), particularly in the form of copyrighted material like software, music and movies, have been trying to find ways to control the redistribution of their property. In the early days of commercial software, various forms of copy protection schemes were tried, all without success. Within days of a new software package being released, “cracked” versions would appear in piracy circles. Eventually copy protection was abandoned, since it annoyed legitimate users while not stopping piracy.

As computers became capable of delivering high-fidelity audio, music began to be distributed. MP3s were swapped between fans, most famously by the Napster service. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), being a much more powerful group than the software industry, began suing anyone facilitating music sharing. Hollywood, represented by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), also became nervous, knowing that their turn would be only a few years away.

As a result, large companies who depended on copyright for their cash flow began working the political angle. The US Congress soon passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), and the World Trade Organization created the World Intellectual Property Organization and its WIPO Copyright Treaty. These gave copyright holders much more powerful laws with which to pursue copyright infringer’s, and forced foreign countries to pass similar laws.

The DMCA and WIPO are major steps back-wards for consumers of copyrighted material, or users of patented products (including software). In the past consumers could make a copy of a copyrighted product for their own uses — for example, backing up a audio tape in case it is damaged, converting an audio CD into an MP3 file to play on a computer, or time-shifting a TV program with a VCR. This is no longer allowed if the copyright holder wants to prevent it.

To get around the annoying fact that copy protection schemes can always be broken, the DMCA makes it illegal to circumvent copy protection, or even to reverse engineer such systems. As a result of this, companies are blocked from trying to build interruptible products that can play copyrighted material, and researchers cannot drill down on how good proposed copy protection systems are.

The results of this are ludicrous. As an example, Dmitry Sklyarov, a Russian programmer and researcher, was arrested when in the US presenting details on how insecure the Adobe Acrobat encryption system was. Canadians are now well used to paying a “Copying Fee” when they purchase CDRs, as they’re assumed to be guilty of piracy. And, technically, a simple audio patch cord is illegal since it could be used make a recording of protected content.

Unfortunately, things are likely to get worse (for consumers) before they get better, if they ever do. The Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act (CBDTPA) would have forced Digital Rights Management (DRM) to be installed in all electronic devices — fortunately the act did not pass, although a revised version is expected to be resubmitted. US Representative Howard Berman (D-Calif), a good friend of big media, recently introduced proposed legislation which would have made denial of service attacks by copyright holders against file-sharing services legal.

And Microsoft, always the friend of the consumer, have patented the idea (itself a ludicrous concept) of a DRM operating system, known as Palladium. The thinking here is that, combined with DRM hardware on the motherboard, no software or media which does not have DRM credentials could be run or played. While raising the ire of European antitrust officials, not to mention privacy and consumer rights groups, the day is well within sight when you can’t control what you can do with your own computer

In fact, it may already be here. A recent security patch to the Windows Media Player included the following in the End User License Agreement (EULA): “…in order to protect the integrity of content and software protected by digital rights management, Microsoft may provide security related updates to the OS Components that will be automatically downloaded onto your computer. These security related updates may disable your ability to copy and/or play Secure Content and use other software on your computer.”

Like television, high-speed computers and the Internet held the promise of educating and entertaining the masses. Alas, unless current trends reverse, they will instead suffer the same fate as TV: a mindless wasteland of pay-as-you-go tripe leveraged for the profits of a few multi-national corporations. Welcome to the future; enter your credit-card number here.

Published in the Victoria Business Examiner.