Archive for July, 2002

We are on the verge of a music revolution. MP3 players are hot sellers. Almost every computer sold today comes with a CD-R drive so people can burn their own music CD’s. Napster may be dead, but OpenNap, Gnutella, and other non-centralized music sharing protocols have risen to fill the niche. Increasing computing power, larger data storage capacities, and broadband internet connections are enabling us to enter an age where we can quickly transfer digital music files between computers, make our own compilation CD’s of our favorite songs, and carry hundreds or even thousands of songs in our pockets. In addition, some innovative artists are experimenting with online services that allow you to buy individual songs or entire albums to download in MP3 format. It’s an exciting new world of freedom to choose how to buy and listen to music.

However, this music revolution may die an early death, drowned in legal issues.

American copyright law was established in the U.S. Constitution. The purpose of the copyright clause was to encourage technological progress by establishing a limited time period during which only the creator of an invention could manufacture and sell the invention. Without such protections, there would not be much incentive to pour resources into research and development, since anyone could then immediately take the results of that work and benefit without the R&D investment. Copyright law also protects artistic works in a similar manner by preventing people from making and selling unauthorized copies of the work, which would deprive the artist of the benefit of his or her work.

Copyright law gives some very powerful, and necessary, protections to inventors and artists. At the same time, the law has traditionally been interpreted by the courts to grant some specific rights to consumers who purchase copyrighted works also. These rights are know as fair use, and describe the uses of copyrighted works which do not infringe on the rights of the copyright holder. These fair use rights include such activities as making back up copies and copies for personal use. For example, you are allowed to record TV shows with a VCR for later viewing, or copy songs from several CD’s to a tape so that you can listen to them on a tape player while at the gym.

However, these fair use rights are coming under attack. The entertainment industry is feeling threatened by activities such as the illegal sharing of music enabled by the combination of MP3 and the internet. In order to prevent this illegal activity the entertainment industry is implementing various forms of copy protection and lobbying for new copyright laws. The first such law was the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) which was passed in 1998.

The DMCA makes it illegal to circumvent any copy protection scheme. For example, all DVD’s are encoded with a copy protection code know as CSS, which makes all DVD’s encoded with CSS unreadable unless the DVD player has the necessary decryption code key to decode the data on the disc. All manufacturers of consumer DVD players and companies who sell computer software DVD players have payed the licensing fee to obtain and employ the decryption code key necessary to decode the DVD data in their products. However, at the time the DMCA was enacted, there was no company that made a software DVD player for Linux, so a clever programmer set out to break the CSS code and produce an open-source software DVD player for Linux users without the licensed decryption code key. He was successful, but the entertainment industry successfully sued to block the distribution of the software under the DMCA since the software circumvented the copy protection employed by DVD’s.

This example illustrates the problem with the DMCA. Many people just wanted software to play their DVD’s on their Linux computers—a perfectly legitimate use—however the DMCA made the software necessary for these people to exercise their fair use rights illegal. Unfortunately the DMCA is only the beginning and the proposed laws will only get more restrictive of fair use. In addition, the copy protection schemes that the entertainment industry is putting into use are becoming more troublesome. Some CD’s which have been recently released (mostly in Europe), carry corrupted data tracks. Consumer CD players ignore data tracks and proceed to the music data unaffected. However, computer CD-ROM drives, which are designed to check data tracks first, get stuck on the corrupted data track, and the discs may even cause the computer to crash. I believe that such CD’s infringe on our fair use rights to play music CD’s in any CD drive.

By opposing copy protection and more powerful copyright laws do I support the illegal distribution of copyright works (piracy)? By no means! All I want is the ability to use my fair use rights without technological or legal hinderance. Distributing unauthorized copies of copyrighted works is illegal even without new legislation such as the DMCA, so there is no reason for additional laws. Technological measures will eventually be defeated whether it is legal or illegal to do so anyway, so the only effect such copy protection will have is creating a terrible limitation on law-abiding consumers.

This is a serious issue that is not going to go away. If you see a CD that uses copy protection, do not buy it! Let your money talk. Also, contact your representatives and let them know that you do not support the recording industries attempts to limit fair use. Visit the links below, get educated, and act now!

DigitalConsumer.org – An organization that is lobbying against new legislation similar to the DMCA.
Celine Dion Killed My iMac! – Great article about the technical side of CD copy protection and how to defeat it with a magic marker!
Why the Music Industry Wants To Trash Your Computer – Article about CD copy protection, some legal considerations, and the recording industry’s strategy for abusing their power.

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