After weeks of conference calls and quiet rallying of the troops, technology companies including Intel, IBM, Microsoft and Compaq Computer held a coming-out press conference Monday to oppose a broad copyright protection proposal being backed by Walt Disney and Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S. C.
The plan has yet to be introduced as a bill, but it has been the source of intense debate since August, when drafts first began reaching the public. The technology companies' event appeared to be aimed at pre-empting a Senate hearing on the issue scheduled for later this week.
"This legislation would be an unwarranted intrusion by the government into the commercial marketplace," said Ken Kay, executive director of the Computer Systems Policy Project, a trade group that includes IBM, Intel, Dell Computer, Motorola and others as members. "This would freeze technology...(and) force government to pick winners and losers."
The fuss over a bill that hasn't even been introduced yet is a sign of just how high the stakes are in this battle, in which both content and technology companies see their future businesses at risk. But there is also a hint of battle-weariness in the speed with which each side has hardened its lines.
The movie, music and technology industries have been trying for years, with only limited success, to agree on a standard way of protecting content from Internet and other digital piracy. A high-profile effort dubbed the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI), intended to be a private sector version of the kind of technology effort Hollings' plan outlines, collapsed largely because of disagreements between technology and content companies.
Hollings' plan would restart this process, this time with the force of law behind it, and apply it to all digital devices.
The early draft bill would require the technology industry to come to its own decision on a copy-protection standard within 18 months, or else have the government step in to mandate a solution.
The bill would bar the sale of any "interactive digital device" that did not have the anti-piracy technology built in. It would also be illegal to remove or disable the security technology as well as to remove the piracy protections from a song, movie or other piece of content.
Digital civil liberties groups, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and technology trade associations immediately and fiercely opposed the idea.
The bill's backing appears insecure. While Disney has come out strongly and publicly in favor of the idea, other studios and content companies have been more circumspect. Washington insiders say that News Corp. supports the idea but AOL Time Warner does not stand behind the plan in its current form.
The Motion Picture Association of America endorses the goals of Hollings' plan but stops short of actually embracing the proposed legislation itself.
"The MPAA agrees with the goals of the Hollings bill, that is, for the private parties to negotiate an agreement on Internet standards for content encryption, watermarking (and) digital rights management," MPAA President Jack Valenti said in a statement. "When an agreement is reached by the private parties, we will all then together support appropriate legislation regarding copyright protection in digital devices."
Hollings' office was closed Monday, and a representative could not immediately be reached.
In their press conference Monday, the technology companies said the market is already responding with adequate anti-piracy technology, such as that from Microsoft and an Intel-backed coalition of companies. But trying to make a single technology fit a variety of applications and devices--as was the case with SDMI and appears to be the case with Hollings' bill--is the wrong way to go, the companies said.
"It's a mistake to say that there is a magic bullet out there that somebody's going to invent," said Jeff Lawrence, chairman of Intel's copyright protection group.