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Tech Industry

Senator calls for copy-protection tags

Senate bill seeks to warn consumers about software, music and movies that employ copy-protection schemes.

WASHINGTON--Software, music and movies that employ copy-protection schemes must be prominently labeled with consumer warnings, according to a bill introduced in Congress this week.

The measure, sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., would grant the Federal Trade Commission the power to establish labeling methods for technology that limits the ability of consumers to freely copy, distribute or back up digital content.

"While digital media companies are racing to develop technologies to combat piracy, some of these antipiracy measures could have the effect of restricting lawful, legitimate consumer uses as well as unlawful copying," Wyden said in a statement. "My bill says that if digital content is released in a form that prevents or limits reasonable consumer use, consumers have a right to be told in advance."

The proposal, called the Digital Consumer Right to Know Act, represents the latest fusillade in the battles over copyright, peer-to-peer networks, and digital rights management that are taking place in Congress.

Last year, the Motion Picture Association of America backed a bill that would forcibly implant copy-protection technology in PCs and consumer electronics, while two other proposals would defang the "anticircumvention" portions of the 1998 controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act. None of the three bills has been voted out of committee; and the MPAA-backed proposal has not been reintroduced during the 108th Congress, which convened in January.

Wyden's bill would give the Federal Trade Commission a year to devise regulations that would apply to copy-protected software like Microsoft's Windows XP and Intuit's TurboTax, most DVDs, and the relatively small number of music CDs girded with antipiracy schemes.

An early report from an Intel-sponsored summit last month suggested that Wyden's bill would require certain consumer-electronics devices to be labeled. As introduced, the proposal applies only to any "producer or distributor of copyrighted digital content" that impairs the ability of the purchaser to use it freely.

The bill would not restrict the ability of companies, vendors or distributors to employ whatever antipiracy technologies they wish, as long as they were clearly labeled. It also would not apply to analog content.

With Congress on a wartime footing and focused on homeland security, it's unclear how likely the bill is to be enacted this year. No companion measure has been introduced in the House of Representatives.

Adam Thierer, an analyst at the free-market Cato Institute, says Wyden's bill is unwise, as was the mandatory copy-protection proposal that Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., introduced last year.

"The better alternative to federal mandates on either side of this debate is to instead just encourage a technological free-for-all in the marketplace," Thierer said. "Let the industry do whatever it wants in an attempt to bottle up their content, but also let consumers continue to experiment with and use digital content in creative ways without fears of federal intervention at every turn... There's no reason for Congress to intervene in an attempt to solve each and every intellectual property dispute, as has seemingly becoming the case in recent years."

A separate bill sponsored by Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., adopts the same approach as Wyden's proposal but does not go as far. Boucher's bill would require anyone selling copy-protected CDs to include a "prominent and plainly legible" notice that the discs include antipiracy technology that could render them unreadable on some players.