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Buh-bye, Fair Use - the CBDTPA's Coming Your Way

Buh-bye, Fair Use - the CBDTPA's Coming Your Way

by , 10:00 AM EDT, April 9th, 2002

If you're familiar with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, just wait and see what's next in store. The Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act is a bill before the US Congress right now, thanks to Democrat Senator Fritz Hollings.

The Hollings Bill, allegedly, is designed to encourage people to adopt things like HD-TV and broadband internet connections. "If more high-quality content were available, consumer interest would likely increase," he says, according to this Salon.com story. With more reason to buy HDTVs and broadband, we'll spend more money, the economy gets a helping hand.

So they'd have us believe, anyway. More accurately, it helps out the entertainment industry, who say they would just love to offer more broadband and digital entertainment - but that whole piracy problem is holding them back. Can we say "flimsy pretense?" Yes? Good.

Hollings' bill asserts that achieving this level of confidence in a piracy-free world requires federal intervention. It says that the government should mandate copy protection technology for everything and anything that could possibly work with digital media - text, videos, audio, and so on. The bill gives the technology industry 12 months to come to an agreement on how to go about this, and as soon as a standard is agreed upon (probably the day Satan ice-skates to work) and implemented, all sales of any digital media storage or device that doesn't include this copy prevention will become illegal. Circumventing it, even to support your own fair use, will be illegal. You shall face fines or prison time.

Oh, and make no mistake - it does mean anything, hardware AND software. Here's a small list, in case the concept of "anything" isn't quite sinking in:

  • computer programs
  • Jaz and Zip disks/SuperDisks/other removable cartridges
  • Your hard drives
  • PDAs and other handhelds
  • Your CD-ROM, DVD, SuperDrive or CD-R drives
  • Your portable compact disc player, stereo, or car sound system.
  • For that matter, music and data CDs themselves. Why not?
  • Digital cameras that use Memory Stick, Secure Digital cards, MMC's, or removable hard disks
  • Your Playstations, X-Boxes, or sundry other game consoles
  • Digital video recorders like TiVo
  • Digital televisions and HDTV set-top boxes
  • And of course, those terrible tools of the devil, portable MP3 players like the Rio or iPod.

Oh, and if you're outside the US, don't think you'll be safe from the impact of this bill. Not only do the US markets and politics have a major impact on other countries, but do you really think there are very many manufacturers who would bother retooling for products intended for the rest of the world? They'll either sell you the product with the copy protection, or not bother exporting at all. In fact, it's unclear as to whether the bill permits a US manufacturer to make something without the copy protection, even if the product is intended for foreign markets.

If you're not suspicious, concerned, or even a tiny little bit intrigued at this point, you should be. As one Observer said in our forums, "I'm surprised they didn't turn the deception knob up to eleven, and call it the Cute Fuzzy Bunny, Puppy, And Kitty Protection Act."

The impact on you, the consumer

The impact on you should be easy to see: if you make copies of media that you purchased for your personal use, your Fair Use right to do so is going to magically disappear in a puff of smoke if this bill gets through. Make a copy of a CD for your car stereo? Forget it; your copy-protection-enabled CD-R drive won't let you. Rip that CD to MP3s, and listen to them on your computer or MP3 player? Forget that too, there'll be copy protection built right in to the CD. Tape something off TV? Nuh-uh; the newly protection-enabled VCR won't let you.

The impact on the world at large

Well, asides from kissing your Fair Use rights goodbye, you can look forward to a couple of pretty good reasons why this bill is such a colossally frightening thing.

Firstly, this bill is incredibly vague. Any hardware or software that stores or handles digital media in some way could literally mean any number of things: Unix tools like pico and vi, my WAP-enabled cellphone, a TI-83 calculator, a microwave that stores recipes, or the OS 9 Appearance control panel. A cash register. A Tamagotchi pocket toy. A GPS receiver. Where does it end? Are we going to be prosecuting companies left-right-and-center for not including this technology in a product, just cause it can store a few bits?

Secondly, what impact could this have on smaller developers, or the open source software movement? The global community of open source geeks are not going to take well to the idea of government policeware becoming a mandatory part of their systems, especially those who are non-Americans. Is a US citizen allowed to use software made in another country, where such a protection technology isn't required? Where are we drawing the line here?

Thirdly, who are they kidding? The protection scheme will be cracked, just like DVD encoding (DeCSS) and Acrobat's eBook format. All it takes is one clever person to work out how to crack or circumvent the protection on a given media format, and it's all over the Net before you can say "analog playback to audio-in jack". There'll also be a boom in black-market devices designed to get around this, much like the 'region-free' DVD players that are in such demand right now.

What can you do?

Write to your representatives in Congress. Bitch. Moan. Complain. Sound off. There's a feedback form at the Senate Web site, although contacting your own senator or representative directly will work better. Get familiar with your digital rights and issues at the Electronic Frontier Foundation - they're packed with information, inspiration and ideas.

You have rights. These are things that will take away your right to enjoy the music and media that you have legally purchased. Think about how often you make or use a copy of digital media: a PDF file, some music, downloading video, taping a TV show. If this bill is passed, it could be only a short time before this becomes so difficult as to be near enough to impossible.


Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, Copy-Protected CDs Already Threaten Your Rights, appearing tomorrow. We're already discussing the Hollings Bill in our forums.

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