Our Digital World Today



Can we put a lock on digital music?

The debates over control in the new digital age—mainly focused on the new definition of copyright—have played out in the media and the courts between the recording industry, the technology providers, and the consumers. In recent days, members of congress are making their voice a little louder, introducing legislation aimed at the digital world from all corners. Though lawmakers will soon conclude their business for the year, these issues will likely see heated action on the congressional floor next year as well.

In the realm of consumer rights vs. copyright holders, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-CA, has introduced the “Digital Choice and Freedom Act,” aimed at protecting the lawful consumer’s rights with regard to the personal use of digital entertainment (including copying), similar to provisions made in past years for home audio and video recording.

Rep. Rick Boucher, D-VA, a noted advocate for the technology side, has introduced similar legislation. His “Digital Media Consumers’ Rights Act” carries the endorsement of the Intel Corporation, the Philips Corporation, Verizon, Sun Microsystems, Gateway, the Consumer Electronics Association, the Home Recording Rights Coalition, the Computer and Communications Industry Association, the Association of American Universities, the American Library Association and other library organizations, the Digital Future Coalition, the Consumers Union, Public Knowledge, the National Writers Union, and the American Foundation for the Blind.

Both bills would also seek to amend the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (passed in 1998), which currently makes it a crime to skirt technological protections built in to copyrighted works, and allow consumers to bypass that technology legally to make a copies for personal use. Anti-DMCA advocates argue that the law prohibits fair use and has the potential to infringe on free speech activity.

Those bills will go head-to-head with Hollywood/entertainment industry-backed proposals, introduced by Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-SC, and Rep. Howard L. Berman, D-CA, that support the use of embedded copy protection technology in consumer devices and allow the music and film industry clearance to engage in “aggressive” anti-piracy technologies.

Hilary Rosen, chairman and CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America, remains an outspoken advocate for the music industry on the Hill. Only last week she gave testimony on P2P piracy, characterizing the problem as an “epidemic for the American economy and culture.” She stressed that the RIAA’s goal is not to limit the advance of technology, but rather to take action against those who use it illegally. She expressed her appreciation to Representative Berman and cosponsors “for introducing a bill that is intended to level the technological playing field by assuring that copyright owners can take preventive measures that will deny the downloading of their works when it is not authorized—without invading a user’s privacy or damaging a user’s computer or network.”

As with the evolution of the radio, the photocopier, and the VCR, developing technology likely poses a mix of real threat to established industries and a certain amount of overreaction to new technology and delivery methods. The best course for all involved remains a clouded issue at this point. On the one hand are those claiming the protection of the artist and the copyright holder, and on the other is the need for freedom to explore new technologies and foster advances in the field. Somewhere in there is also the need to protect the basic rights of the law-abiding consumer. Ultimately, the issue will likely be decided in the marketplace. The amount of legislation put into effect that helps or hinders the process remains to be seen.

On the webcasting front, October 20, 2002 draws ever nearer (the day when webcasters will owe up to three years of royalties to record labels and performing artists). Here again the industry is pushing one way and the technology (in this case the pioneering webcaster) in the other. The pressure is on the labels and webcasters to come to a compromise in order to help the small online radio stations avoid bankruptcy.

On Thursday, House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-WI), recognized for his support of small businesses, pulled his proposed bill to suspend royalties for six months after being assured by both sides that an agreement would be reached by the end of the week.

Meanwhile, in life after Napster, the New York Times recently reported that participation in music subscription services is on the rise in the wake of an increasing number of fraudulent files (rumored to be a guerilla tactic of the record labels) and viruses on P2P sites and the disappearance of Internet radio stations. Interestingly, the Times found the most popular legal subscription service to be not MusicNet (a joint venture of Real Networks, AOL Time Warner, Bertelsmann and EMI Group) or Pressplay (owned by Universal and Sony), but EMusic (part of Vivendi Universal Net USA) with 60,000 registered users. Still, that number can’t yet compare with the some two million users reportedly logged on to the P2P network KaZaA at peak times.