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Protect Your Rights:
Prevent Intrusive Regulation of Digital Media
Daniel Agee
Academic affiliation: Oklahoma State University
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Digital media technology has evolved at an amazing rate over the past decade. New products with an ever-increasing list of features seem to be introduced every day. However, the advancement of technology breeds controversy. One such controversy involves the sharing of digital media, particularly MP3s. This phenomenon was thrust into the national spotlight when the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) sued Napster for copyright infringement. Napster is (or rather was) a peer to peer file-sharing application used to trade MP3s over the Internet. The RIAA claimed that Napster allowed its users to share unauthorized copies of music that belonged to the RIAA and its artists. Mike Godwin's essay, "Hollywood vs. the Internet," details how music and movie copyright holders are doing their best to stop the sharing of digital media. Although one can hardly blame them for wanting to protect their intellectual property, copyright protection is no justification for the stifling limitations they wish to impose on the digital media technology industry.

The RIAA's current scheme to prevent piracy is to institute some type of brand or watermark into all new digital media. By outlawing the production of all components that play unbranded media, they can effectively turn every digital media player into a copyright enforcer. While this may sound like a great idea to the copyright holders, the ramifications of such a law are unsettling to say the least. As Godwin points out, "…if the new entertainment systems won't play content without watermarks, they won't work with old digital videos or MP3s" (174). What this means is that even legitimate digital media that was recorded before the institution of the branding system will be incompatible with the new devices. For someone who happens to own an old player, this would not be a problem. However, the beauty of digital media is that it significantly outlasts other forms of storage, and will likely outlast the players currently on the market. Once these existing players stop working, all media recorded before the brand was instituted will be lost.

The RIAA has also come up with a much more consumer friendly plan to combat the illegal trade of copyrighted songs, namely by getting into the MP3 trading business themselves. A number of online MP3 stores have opened recently advertising large selections and cheap downloads. On the topic of online music stores, Matthew Gerson believes that, "…fans will have no trouble paying for the music that they love and compensating the artists who bring it to them…" (Godwin 176). To an extent, he is right. One reason that the illegal trade of MP3s has become so popular is because the price of music has gone up even as music quality has gone down. The average CD costs about fifteen dollars and may have one or two good songs, and the rest are nothing more than filler. People do not want to pay fifteen dollars for two songs when they can get online and download those two songs for free. By allowing people to purchase only the songs they like, pressure is placed on the artists to write better music. In this situation, everyone wins. The recording industry still makes money off the consumer, and the consumer is rewarded with a better product.

There are other not so obvious problems with using a media branding system to prevent copyright infringement. The current business practice of the technology industry is to make products that are completely and totally incompatible with similar products manufactured by their competitors. Technology companies do this to force customer loyalty by making their competitor's products useless to customers who have already invested in a certain product line. As Jefferson Graham points out, many companies, "…wrap their songs in copyright protection from Microsoft that prevents the songs from playing on the iPod. Apple uses a different copy-protection method…," (2) that is incompatible with players produced by Rio, RCA, and Creative Technologies. If a consumer buys an iPod, they are essentially being forced by Apple to download music only from Apple sanctioned sources. By removing devices from the market that can circumvent these invasive security measures, digital media that has been branded may still be unplayable on all but a select few devices. If branding is to be incorporated into all new digital media, it must be regulated in such a way as to make it playable on all media devices.

Not everyone who supports copyright laws agrees with the RIAA's thoughts on how far regulations should go to protect intellectual property. As a spokesman for the Business Software Alliance (BSA), an alliance that includes many software and hardware designers and manufacturers, Emery Simon criticizes the RIAA's belief in compulsory copyright protection by calling mandatory protections, "…an abysmally stupid idea" (Godwin 175). Although the BSA supports copyright laws, they believe that companies should be able to choose the level of security they wish to impose on their intellectual property. While they believe that companies should be free to impose copyright protections, and that circumventing these protections should be illegal, they do not think that required protection for all intellectual property is the solution. They see their customers as people who deserve more functional and powerful products at lower prices. By imposing copyright protections on all digital devices, they effectively defeat their business objectives by turning computers and digital media players into nothing more than special-purpose appliances.

An anti-piracy bill recently introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) takes the copyright infringement debate to a new level. As Steve Lohr says, "The bill would make anyone liable who 'intentionally aids, abets, induces, counsels or procures' a copyright violation" (2). If passed, this bill would deal a devastating blow to innovation and creativity in software and hardware design. File sharing on the Internet is a very useful tool and is completely legal in many cases. Programs that send files over the Internet are used by people around the world to share information, ideas, and personal documents. A new mother in London can use such software to send pictures of her child to excited grandparents in San Francisco. A businessman in Hong Kong can use a similar program to send sales reports to his home office in Kansas City. These are completely legal ways in which people share files over the Internet. This bill, however, would make illegal all software that could possibly be used in a way deemed inappropriate by the RIAA. As software that can be used for file sharing would likely be at the top of this list, the RIAA is effectively putting their interests above the interests of law-abiding citizens around the country. If a ban on file sharing software were to be enacted, steps would have to be taken to ensure that it did not encroach into legal uses for such programs.

Supporters of tougher copyright legislation attempt to justify the bills using economic scare tactics and exaggerated figures. The BSA recently released a study which said that software piracy causes an estimated twenty-nine billion dollars in losses each year. While losses that large definitely deserve attention, John Gantz, research director for the company which conducted the study, disagrees with the way that the BSA introduced the figure. Gantz says that the BSA study claimed that every illegal copy of a copyrighted work was equal to a lost sale. He went on to explain that perhaps one out of ten illegal copies could be counted as a lost sale and that he, "…would have preferred to call it the retail value of pirated software" (Lohr 2). While this distinction may sound trivial, the inflation of loss figures is at the heart of yet another attempt by copyright holders to get Congress to stiffen copyright laws. The members of Congress know that tougher copyright laws are not popular with their constituents, and have thus been reluctant to pursue stricter regulations. The RIAA and others like them are trying to lead Congress to believe that their businesses cannot support such losses and that stricter legislation is required to prevent their demise.

The protection of intellectual property is a legally given right of all businesses and individuals creative enough to come up with a concept that others are willing to purchase. However, this protection should not come at the expense of further development and ingenuity. The digital revolution was founded on the idea of allowing people to do new and creative things that were impossible just a few years ago. The idea of limiting the abilities of the devices that spurred this revolution does not make sense. Once all the older media players have been broken or lost, the media that was recorded prior to the institution of the branding technology, legal or not, will be unviewable. By removing the longevity of digital media, one of the greatest advancements over traditional analog media is lost. However, by giving the consumer a more customizable music experience through the selection of individual songs for purchase, the recording industry will likely earn back the respect of its paying customers, thus reducing the threat of the illegal music trade.

Works Cited

Godwin, Mike. "Hollywood vs. the Internet." Speculations. Ed. Jason Landrum, Matthew Wynn Sivils, Constance Squires. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 2003. 173-178

Graham, Jefferson. "Students Score Music Perks as Colleges Fight Piracy." USA Today 24 Aug. 2004: Section: News, Pg. 01a

Lohr, Steve. "Software Group Enters Fray Over Proposed Piracy Law." New York Times 19 July 2004, late ed.: C.8

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