HolidayBuyer's Guide

Messages grow manic as piracy nears high court

Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a pivotal case pitting copyright holders against the makers of file-sharing software.

Garret the Ferret is one hip copyright crusader. The cartoon character urges young cybercitizens toward ethical downloading and--in baggy jeans and a gold "G" medallion--reminds them that copying and sharing software is uncool.

He is also a byproduct of the long-roiling public relations battle between copyright owners, who say they are threatened by digital piracy, and technology advocates opposed to strict controls on digital media copying and on software that make piracy so easy.

With the Supreme Court scheduled next month to hear a pivotal case pitting copyright holders (represented by MGM Studios) against the makers of file-sharing software (Grokster and StreamCast Networks), participants are putting their message machines into high gear.

But winning hearts and minds of teenagers, consumers and lawmakers has never been a simple matter.

"It's hard for two reasons," said Rick Weingarten, the director of the Office for Information Technology Policy at the American Library Association, which has been exploring ways to strike a balance in the copyright and antipiracy messages being aimed at young people.

"Copyright law is not the easiest thing to explain, and it's hard to put a bumper sticker on it," Weingarten said. "But, you're also talking about the future, and it's hard to explain to a consumer that there could one day be a lot of restrictions on what you can do with new technology."

One side must make people care about obscure technological innovations that they say will be stifled by legislative action or an adverse Supreme Court ruling. The other side battles the image of greedy corporate profiteers and the perception that freely downloading copyrighted works is something other than theft.

"It was easier before the computer," said Dan Glickman, chief executive of the Motion Picture Association of America, which has ramped up its antipiracy efforts in recent weeks with a new round of lawsuits and a media campaign warning would-be thieves to "think again." Two weeks ago, the association also began offering a free, downloadable program that allows parents to scan computers for file-sharing software and potentially pirated media files.

"People knew they couldn't steal a video tape out of Blockbuster," Glickman said, "but the principles are still the same."

Endangered Gizmos campaign
Not to be outdone, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the digital rights advocacy group that is representing StreamCast Networks in the Grokster case, unveiled its Endangered Gizmos campaign to coincide with the filing of dozens of MGM-friendly amicus briefs with the Supreme Court late last month.

The campaign displays cheeky taxonomies of "extinct" or "endangered" techno-species like the original file-sharing service Napster, which was sued into submission, and the Streambox VCR, which allowed people to record streaming media off the Internet and suffered a similar fate. The foundation hopes to convince consumers and lawmakers that there are cultural costs to giving copyright holders too much power.

"So many of the issues that we deal with are really abstruse," said Wendy Seltzer, an intellectual property attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the principal creator of the Endangered Gizmos campaign. "And yet they touch a whole segment of the public that we want to reach out to."

Whether any of these messages is getting through is an open question. Survey data from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, a nonprofit research group in Washington, show that among those who actively download music, 58 percent still say they do not care if the material is copyright protected.

Among the general public, 57 percent say they are unfamiliar with concepts like "fair use"--the kernel of copyright law that allows people to copy protected materials under certain conditions, and which digital rights groups contend has been inappropriately constricted by the recording and film industries.

The fight has given rise to grassroots organizations like Downhill Battle, a nonprofit group based in Worcester, Mass., that conducts a robust trade in T-shirts, bumper stickers, posters and other paraphernalia that chide the music and film industries for what it considers wanton profiteering at the expense of artists and consumers.

In a challenge to fair-use restrictions, the group made digitized, downloadable copies of "Eyes on the Prize, Part I: Awakenings"--the first installment of a 1987 documentary on the civil rights movement--and is encouraging mass, noncommercial screenings of it on Tuesday. The film has largely been absent from television and video rental shelves while the Boston-based Blackside production company works to renew (and pay for) permissions on the hundreds of copyrighted elements used in the film--from archival news footage to songs like "Happy Birthday."

Fear and confusion
Blackside was not pleased with the copying and distribution of its film, and persuaded the group to remove it from its Web site last week. But fear and confusion over the legal issues has led at least one county in Virginia to stop a teacher from showing the school's legally acquired copy of the film to students and community members.

"The school district didn't understand that they have fair-use rights," said Tiffiniy Cheng, a director of Downhill Battle, which lists more than two dozen venues that, it says, have committed to screening the film.

But the nagging fear of legal action, even among right-minded users of digital materials, has made it difficult for copyright holders to foster a positive public image--even though they see lawsuits as critical to stamping out theft.

"It would be ideal if our educational efforts got more attention," said Mitch Bainwol, chief executive of the Recording Industry Association of America, which has waged a well-publicized legal campaign against file sharers. "But the lawsuits get more coverage because of the nature of the controversy."

Those on the digital rights side of the debate recognize the content industry's image problem, and they are not above exploiting it. But they know that their own image is troubled, too.

Indeed, all but the most strident digital anarchists agree that illegal file sharing is wrong. Yet those who argue for strong fair-use protections are often portrayed by opponents as supporters of theft.

"They can so easily be painted as favoring piracy," said Susan Crawford, a professor of Internet law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School in New York and a member of the advisory board for Public Knowledge, a Washington group that has fought legislation that it argues would stifle new technological advances. "They have to deal with a concept that's even harder to visualize--innovation--and they have not found a sound bite or a picture that puts across a message to people."

For groups like Public Knowledge, antipiracy tactics like the entertainment industry's case against Grokster and StreamCast or legislation like the Induce Act, which stalled in Congress last year and which opponents argued would have stifled technological innovation by making developers of file-sharing software subject to lawsuits, present a morass of legal and technical nuance that is hard to reduce to sound bites.

That is why the Electronic Frontier Foundation has taken to turning the gizmos they see threatened by the Grokster lawsuit into pandas and spotted owls. "That's an image," Crawford said. "They can play on people's love for gadgets," although she added that it's not quite the humanizing stroke one might hope for.

"It's an uphill battle to visualize innovation," she said.

Rights and wrongs
The Business Software Alliance, the powerful consortium of software manufacturers, might well agree with that sentiment.

The group clearly wants to stamp out the use of pirated software--a recent study by International Data Corporation estimated that 36 percent of software installed on computers worldwide was pirated. But it is also interested in fostering the development of new technologies that, in addition to having perfectly legal uses, could also be abused by pirates.

"It's easy for one side to say well, let's just limit the functionality of technology, because we only care about the pain it's causing our business," said Emery Simon, the director for general policy at the alliance. "On the flip side, you can say, well, technology is the superceding and overarching good. Both are right, and both are wrong."

In addressing those rights and wrongs, the alliance has mounted some of the more ambitious public campaigns of any group--including the introduction of Garret the Ferret into schools. The group has also relicensed its use of the cartoon character Dilbert, which it has used to reach out to professional engineers, via Web sites like BSAengineers.com and through bulk mailings, to warn them against using pirated software.

"We hope that the engineers that got the Dilbert flier will take the message home," said Debbi Mayster, the alliance's communications manager.

It did not work for everyone.

Bryan Fields, a partner and chief engineer with Illiana.net, an Internet service provider to customers in Illinois and Indiana, is one recipient who did not appreciate the gesture. He said in an e-mail message that he did not like seeing Dilbert, "who stands for everything that's wrong with soul-sucking corporations, acting as a mouthpiece for the most evil of them all--the BSA."

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