Helping lead the charge is Joe Kraus, founder and former executive of Excite.com. Kraus has launched a new group, DigitalConsumer.org, designed to fight what critics depict as Hollywood's attempt to erode consumer rights in the name of fighting piracy.
The group is pushing Congress to pass a consumer bill of rights that would protect actions such as recording a show for later viewing, moving songs to MP3 players, and making backup copies of digital material.
Since its official launch in mid-March, the organization has attracted 7,000 members. In an interview with CNET News.com, Kraus talked about why he thinks music-industry-backed Web sites are crippled, why the entertainment industry should take a page from software makers, and why consumers should boycott copy-protected CDs.
Q: Where did the idea to form DigitalConsumer.org come from?
A: As consumers, (fellow Excite co-founder) Graham Spencer and I were just getting really annoyed at the things we were seeing, whether it was not being able to skip previews on DVDs or what we were reading about in regards to the digital-television standards or the new copy-protected CDs. And it really reached a turning point when it wasn't just the two of us that were annoyed; we were seeing a tremendous amount of people that were concerned.
How did you find your members?
We've just been amazed at the response we have been getting on a grassroots level. In terms of recruiting executives, that's through personal networks and through helping people understand that this issue goes beyond my mom and dad having trouble with their MP3 player and their DVD player, and goes into issues that affect all of us in Silicon Valley with regard to the ability to innovate.
Can you talk about what some of those issues are?
The consumer issue is pretty obvious. The personal-use rights that consumers had historically are really being taken away. Examples of that are that you can't skip through many of the previews on DVDs, and it's illegal to create a DVD player that would skip through content that companies have flagged as "must watch"...oftentimes, they flag previews.
"I happen to believe that we are entering a world where the personal-use rights that consumers have are being taken away by media companies under the guise of preventing illegal copying."
Album sales are declining, peer-to-peer services are allowing widespread sharing of unauthorized files, and Hollywood is worried that broadband access will make it easier to steal movies. Doesn't the entertainment industry have a right to protect its material from piracy?
I believe there are two sets of rights that need to be adjudicated. Intellectual property holders (should have the right) to protect their intellectual property, but that protection cannot come at the loss of the rights that consumers have for personal and fair use.
I happen to believe that a major reason...piracy is so rampant on file-trading networks is because the media companies haven't embraced the digital download media. If you go to the legal music sites MusicNet and Pressplay, I would say that those sites are crippled. They have two problems. One, there's no catalog. You can't find what you want. There (are) just not enough songs there. Two, most of the songs you can download, you can only have on your computer. You cannot burn them onto a CD and have them be portable. Consumers are voting with their feet. They're saying, "Given that alternative, I still choose the illegal services where...there's a lot of catalog and I can do anything I want with them."
And when you contrast that with the software business?
I can download pretty much any piece of software illegally that I want to using the same file-trading services that I use to download illegal music. Yet I choose not to, mainly because the legal alternatives are viable. What I get is what I expect. I can download that program, I can install it easily, and if I need to upgrade my computer, I can put it on a new computer.
I happen to believe that we are entering a world where the personal-use rights that consumers have are being taken away by media companies under the guise of preventing illegal copying, but (in) reality (companies are) trying to establish new business models.
Give me an example.
Imagine a world where I'm used to recording (the television show) "Everybody Loves Raymond," and a media company says I can't do it anymore. Oh, but you can do it if you pay another $2 per episode. What is really happening here is that media companies are trying to create a new business model that charges consumers to have their personal-use rights back, and I think that's wrong.
Tell me about what your group actually plans to do. Is it lobbying? Is it filing lawsuits?
"Personally, what I think we are seeing, certainly from Congress' point of view, are unintended consequences of the DMCA."
If consumers don't get involved, what do you see happening?
I think consumers do need to get involved. First, make yourself aware that your rights are being taken away. Do something about it. Go to DigitalConsumer.org and send faxes to your elected officials. Let them know you care; support the consumer technology bill of rights. Boycott those media devices or CDs or DVDs that take away your rights. Don't buy them. Don't buy the copy-protected CDs. Consumers have a lot of power.
If we don't do something about this, I think we will have a future where media companies are not only going to control how you get your media, but how you use it: how we watch our movies, how we record our television, when we record our television. Are we allowed to keep that program for three days or seven days? Why are those kinds of things in the control of somebody else when I am paying for my cable bill?
How did we get to the point where there's a need for a group like DigitalConsumer.org?
Historically in this country we've had a balance between the rights of copyright holders and the rights of individuals. The problem is that in 1998 a lot of that balance got shifted to the detriment of consumers. The media companies said: "Hey, look, the Internet is here, and that threatens our business in a lot of ways. Congress, we need a lot more protection than we have right now for our intellectual property, and if you give us that protection, we'll make sure that there are great amounts of digitally available movies and music." So in 1998 the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was passed.
How did that affect consumers?
In all of the debate around the DMCA, there were really no consumer groups represented. There just weren't the right people at the table. Personally, what I think we are seeing, certainly from Congress' point of view, are unintended consequences of the DMCA. I don't think Congress had any intention of basically taking away consumers' personal-use rights through the DMCA. It just so happens that the DMCA can be used to take away (those) rights.
Rather than revisit the DMCA, which I don't think is an effective solution, I think what you need to do is positively assert consumers' rights.