Friday, January 24, 2003

The good thing about this Economist leader is that it is written by someone who clearly gets the fact that copyright law was introduced to encourage creation and distribution of work, and not to ensure that copyright holders gained complete control of how a work is (and all derivative works are) used for all time. They also clearly get that copyright law, when extended too far, can actually hinder creativity rather than help it.

Then however, the leader writer demonstrates that he doesn't understand technology at all, and doesn't know the history of the PC industry, by rather glibly stating that although copyrights should be shorter, laws enforcing technological copy protection should be enacted to allow copyright holders to protect this copyright. There are a number of problems with this. The first is simply that it is easier said than done. Nobody has ever invented a copy protection system that nobody is able to break. There is one basic problem, which is that however you encrypt, scramble and lock your content when you store it on a DVD or whatever, you have to decrypt, unscramble and unlock it to play it. Once you have decrypted, unscrambled and unlocked it to play it, you can also copy it.

This simple fact means that technologically savvy and commercial pirates are never going to be stopped. What having such copy protection in place will do is greatly inconvenience legitimate users, and will make legally legitimate uses of content (such as the various things that fall under "fair use") impossible without the consent of the copyright holders. (The Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) makes it illegal to disable or tamper with copy protection, even if the use to which the copyright material is being put is otherwise legal). It is worth observing that the software industry used copy protection a lot in the early 1980s, but gave up because its customers hated it so much.

Recent attempts at copy protection law from the content industry are attempting to make it mandatory that all computers and other electronic devices sold have so called "digital rights management" software built into them: that is, sortware that refuses to play content unless it is owned legitimately. This is deeply problematic. To see why, it is necessary to think about what a PC is. A PC is a general purpose electronic device. It has a screen, a keyboard, a set of speakers, various peripheral devices such as DVD-ROM drives, hard disks and the like, plus the ability to connect new devices such as digital cameras, scanners, etc, all connected to a processor and some memory that can manipulate infomation to do with those devices in any way. The point is that how it does this is not defined in advanced. A programmer can find new ways for data from one of these devices to be manipulated and then played, used, edited, redisplayed etc etc on any of these devices. The reason we can do all these extraordinary things on our PCs is precisely because of this flexibility. And we should be able to. If I buy a DVD, then I should be able to play it on my PC, and then do anything I like with the data from it on my PC. (Once I have done something on my PC, then copyright law should come into play if I want to give this to other people, but it should not restrict actually what I can do on my PC). The nature of the PC is that people other than the vendor can design the applications for it. Virtually every useful PC application has arisen this way.

Compare this with what, say, a DVD player does. It is designed for reading DVDs, and playing them back on a television. It is a special purpose computer, rather than a general purpose computer. It has one very specific use. It does not allow the data on a DVD to be played in interesting ways. It is designed precisely to be used in the way that Sony (or whoever) intended. This is true of virtually all non-PC electronics devices, from calculators to hi-fi systems to most mobile phones.

And what does the content industry want DRM software want to do. It wants to look at everything my PC does, check if this is within the small set of uses that is permitted, and not allow the PC to do anything that falls within the narrow description of what is allowable under copyright law. In short, it wants to remove the general purpose aspect of the computer. It wants to turn PCs into special purpose devices which can only do things that were specified in advance. It wants to turn PCs into glorified DVD players (or whatever). If you mandate "digital rights management", you are mandating that a PC contain software from a particular vendor, or a small set of vendors. (This is why Microsoft has spent a huge amount of money on various versions of Windows Media Player with all sorts of DRM software built into it. Microsoft wants to be that vendor). This will dramatically restrict the development of new applications. Essentially the content industry finds the general purpose PC so threatening that it wants it outlawed. It wants to give you a small list of applications, and put each in a special box that cannot talk to any other boxes. This way piracy is hard. However, innovation is also hard. The idea of innovation can come from the ground and filter up was what made the PC revolution so special. Eliminating it would quite simply be a catastrophe.

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