The vote had been closely watched by free-speech advocates, hardware makers, Hollywood studios and record labels as a signal of how much control the content and computer industries would have over consumers' use of home PCs.
The defeat of the proposal, which would have been part of a set of standard rules governing computer data storage, makes it less likely that many computer drives will have technology built in to prevent consumers from copying protected files, analysts say. But other technologies will likely take up the slack, they note.
"I don't see this as a big blow against (copy-protection technology in general) because there are other solutions," said Gartner analyst P.J. McNealy. "In any case, this wasn't the most consumer-friendly approach."
An unlikely venue for protest
Content companies are experimenting with novel anti-piracy safeguards to counter the unprecedented distribution power of the Internet. Those efforts have sparked significant debate over the proper scope of copyright protection in the Digital Age.
Opponents of anti-copying technology fear that the benefits of digital technology as well as many traditional reproduction rights are being sacrificed in the blind rush to preserve corporate profits. Others say strong anti-copying technology is needed to prevent copyright law and the industries that depend upon it from being swept away in the digital tide.
The move to lock down content at the hardware level was spearheaded by a hardware manufacturers group made up of Intel, IBM, Toshiba and Matsushita Electric.
The group, known as the 4C Entity, had created technology it called Content Protection for Recordable Media (CPRM) that would add a piracy-blocking mechanism directly into data storage drives. The technology would stop protected content from being transferred to a drive with CPRM built in.
The group has said repeatedly that the technology is intended for portable drives, such as microdrives or the compact Flash memory used for such devices as MP3 players. However, because the technical standards it uses are designed for hard drives, many in the technology community believed that CPRM could be used to block downloads from the Net directly at a computer's hard drive.
The 4C group brought their proposal to the National Committee on Information Technology Standards (NCITS) and asked that support for copy-protection technology be added into the rules governing the way computer drives talk to each other. Their proposal, and a later successor that offered many of the same features, drew the ire of free-speech advocates and some open-source technologists.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), among others, mounted a campaign calling for the public to join the NCITS committee and register protest.
But as of Monday morning, the proposal failed even without the addition of new critics to the committee, an NCITS representative said.
"The committee's decision to reject the (proposal) indicates that more discussions are needed before agreements can be reached," IBM Research Program Director Donald Leake said in a statement. "We believe that content providers have a right to protect their intellectual assets online, if they choose to do so, and that technical protection measures are an important way to provide that protection."
The vote will not prevent the 4C group from continuing to license and sell its CPRM technology, as well as a related anti-piracy technique called Content Protection for Prerecorded Media (CPPM), which is already used for mediums including audio on DVDs. Analysts say the technology will likely see lower market acceptance without the backing of the standards body, however.
It is possible, but unlikely, that another similar proposal could be introduced before the current set of standards is finalized later this year, an NCITS representative said. The standards are likely to be approved in August, providing little time to submit, discuss and vote on any new pieces.
The CPRM skirmishes give a glimpse of what will likely be more frequent flare-ups as the fight over protecting music, videos and software against online piracy moves further into the mainstream.
Already the spotlight on file-swapping service Napster has driven the issue into clear, public view. A Senate committee has scheduled a hearing Tuesday to discuss the digital copyright issues raised by services such as Napster and others.
These discussions are going on as copyright holders and technology companies are working more closely together on ways to protect content against widespread unauthorized distribution.
Some of these approaches go nearly as deep into the guts of ordinary computers as would the hardware-based plans. Microsoft, for example, is touting the ability of its Windows Media software to protect against unauthorized copying at the operating system level, making it difficult for hackers to break through the protections.
InterTrust, another leading "digital rights management" company, produces its own software-based protections and is selling an anti-piracy chip that can be installed in personal computers or portable devices.
The EFF says it's not against these technologies in principle, but will continue to highlight efforts that allow restrictions on what consumers can do with their own machines.
"We're not fighting the technology as much as we're fighting the effort by certain powerful corporate interests to make these technologies ubiquitous," said John Marttila, the director of the EFF's Campaign for Audiovisual Free Expression. "Unfortunately they're going about it in a way that takes away the public's choice to participate or not and to exercise their fair-use rights.