Copy protection

Somehow I missed this a week ago: Senator Fritz Hollings (D-SC) has introduced legislation to promote demand for broadband Internet service and digital television.

What could be wrong with that? Just try to follow this convoluted logic:

  1. The reason there isn't enough demand for broadband is that the content that consumers want isn't available.
  2. The reason the content isn't available is that the content owners (record companies, movie studios, etc.) won't release it.
  3. The reason they won't release it is that they're afraid of it being pirated.
  4. Therefore, the best way to stimulate demand for broadband is to enact sweeping anti-piracy laws.

Okay, so first of all, I think the assumption in point 1 is flawed; my impression is that there's plenty of demand for broadband, growing all the time, and that the reason there's so much demand is that much of the content people want (especially music) is widely available, in pirated form. (My impression is that there's even demand for broadband in places where you can't get it yet.) Perhaps if the content owners made the content easily and cheaply available, piracy would become less of a problem. Software companies have been dealing with piracy for as long as there's been software; the fact that piracy happens does not cause the software industry to collapse.

Anyway, so the really impressive part is the solution that Hollings came up with for the sweeping anti-piracy legislation: add a this-is-copy-protected marker to every piece of digital content that's not freely copyable, and require that all software created, sold, or imported in the US recognize that marker and refrain from copying anything that's copy-protected.

Brilliantly simple and straightforward: no messing about with complicated schemes that can be broken; just put a notice on every book saying "do not copy this," and require all copy machines to recognize and abide by that notice.

Yup, that'll stop people. 'Cause after all, nobody ever uses software that does anything illegal. There's no way that anyone would create any illegal software that ignores the copy-protection marker, and certainly if someone did create such software they wouldn't distribute it to people.

Sarcasm aside, it kinda looks to me like another case of legislation designed to take something that's already illegal and make it even more illegal, and I just don't see why people who would do it in the first place would stop doing it now that there's a bigger louder law about it.

The Wired story about it, with typical Wired rhetoric, talks about how geeks all over America will rise up in revolt over this, and notes that even UNIX copy utilities like cp would be required to contain "embedded copy-protection schemes approved by the federal government." As far as I can tell, that's not precisely accurate; rather, all software would be required to abide by the copy-protection system approved by the federal government, to refrain from copying material that's marked as copy-protected. This is probably not as onerous a burden as the Wired article suggests, though nobody knows exactly what the FCC's copy-protection scheme would entail as yet.

Declan McCullagh's Politech site has more details about the bill, including some press releases and the full text of the bill. Slashdot has, of course, a lot of discussion about it.

The good news is that as of yesterday, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) (and one of the few people in Congress who really get computer stuff; definitely one of the good guys in my book), head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has announced his opposition to this bill, and apparently he probably has the power to keep it from being enacted, at least this year. But a related bill has been introduced in the House, and as the passage of the DMCA shows, it's possible to get support in Congress for this kind of thing. Also, a rumor on Slashdot suggests that Hollings has a habit of introducing much-too-broad legislation, getting it shot down, and then introducing milder versions that look okay by comparison.

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