Ripped, Mixed-Up and Burned
In America, Congress tried to anticipate some of these problems with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), passed in 1998. For the good of the music industry, the DMCA stated that software or hardware created specifically to "crack" copy-protecting systems was illegal. It also included some minimal protection against the potential erosion of consumers' recording freedom.
Now, Senator Ernest Hollings, a Democrat from South Carolina and chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, wants to change the DMCA to help his entertainment industry pals. (Hollings also engineered the notorious 1996 Telecommunications Act that deregulated radio, a move that has allowed behemoth Clear Channel Communications to amass almost 1,200 stations in the United States.) His new legislation was recently introduced in the Senate, labeled misleadingly as the Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act (CBDTP). The bill states that antipiracy technology will have to be placed inside every piece of consumer electronics--from home stereos to computers--which will make it essentially impossible to copy any digital media. Hollywood bedfellow Representative Adam Schiff plans to launch a similar act in the House shortly.
In late February Senate hearings, media titans like Michael Eisner of Disney and Jack Valenti of the Motion Picture Association of America hailed Hollings's bill as an important step in protecting copyrights of, in Eisner's words, "the most important positive contributions to our nation's balance of international trade." The only dissenting voice was that of Intel's Leslie Vadasz, who testified that the legislation will do "irreparable damage."
No consumer groups were invited to testify that this technology, once in place, will mean the effective end of fair use. Defined in the Audio Home Recording Act of 1992, fair use allows consumers to "space shift" single copies of recordings from one medium to another-everything from vinyl records to cassettes, CDs to MP3s. The act also protects "time shifts" which give consumers the legal right to tape a television program for future viewing. And as the entertainment industry applies more pressure on the government, it becomes more likely that Congress will pass into law a bill like those promoted by Senator Hollings and Congressman Schiff.
But record labels like Sony and Universal, unable to wait for the stodgy government to help them, have begun taking matters into their own hands by inserting their own antiduplication protections on CDs. These doctored disks are not even technically considered CDs by inventors Philips Electronics, who say that they have reduced sound quality and high rates of failed playback. The disks may not play on Macintosh computers, CD-ROM based videogame consles, car stereos and other "nontraditional" playback devices. On some computers, attempts to play these albums even cause crashes. The music may be safe, but no one can hear it.
The framing of the digital media debate has been about theft--from artists and major labels--and concern for the rights of consumers has been minimal at best. The fledgling advocacy group Digital Consumer has sponsored a letter-writing campaign which has sent 100,000 faxes to Congress, hoping to get the group's Consumer Technology Bill of Rights an audience with legislators. Other groups, like Don Henley's California-based Recording Artists Coalition and Jenny Toomey's Washington, DC-based Future of Music Coalition have been working with recording artists for several years to find fair, clear-minded ways of negotiating digital download rates and ways to temper the major label greed that many "pirates" cite as a primary reason they steal anyway.
Their argument: Why pay $20 at Tower for an album you can't listen to beforehand? You wouldn't buy a car, a shirt or even a book without testing it out, so why should music be any different? The fear is that with the unfettered Internet, especially with free file-sharing services, it's just as easy to find and listen to Woody Guthrie or Eminem, Dar Williams or Britney. Control of the Internet is not simply about protecting against theft, then; it's about securing the same exclusionary distribution monopoly that the labels have in the real world.
America, poised for broadband Internet dominance and the leader in creative technologies, is at yet another communications crossroads. With strong advocacy and clear-minded legislation, the Internet could develop into the marketplace of ideas it was so (naïvely?) touted to be only a few years ago. Or it can be cleared as the same sort of conduit for multinational entertainment sludge, target marketing and empty-headed hype that radio and television have become through improper government action. The debates over the future of digital music are helping to determine this future. As of now, it's not certain it's a u- or dys-topian one. Either way, download quick.