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DMCA defenders in enemy territory

The RIAA and Fox head to Silicon Valley to debate intellectual property rights with technology companies, consumers and lawmakers.

3 min read
PALO ALTO, Calif.--Copyright owners clashed with consumer electronics makers and consumer advocates during a lively debate Thursday over proposed laws that would give movie and music companies more control over digital copies of their products.

On a visit to the enemy territory of the Silicon Valley, representatives from News Corp.'s Fox Entertainment Group and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which has sued numerous technology companies, defended their legislative push during a panel sponsored by the Cato Institute.

Meanwhile, the leader of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and Silicon Valley Rep. Zoe Lofgren lamented their support of earlier Hollywood-backed bills, including the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), saying the industry had abused them.

"The DMCA was a very flawed law," CEA President Gary Shapiro said. "We signed off on it, and it was a huge mistake."

Lofgren, who introduced the panel, said the DMCA has had unintended consequences. She said she signed off on the law because she was convinced it would be applied narrowly to prevent piracy, but instead it has been used to thwart technological development. "I think we have had a very wide set of anti-technology rules emerging from the courts," she said.

Lofgren warned that new laws should not be used to kill technology and "lock in current business models" of entertainment company "cartels."

Several controversial bills have been introduced in recent months that have fueled the debate over how to prevent piracy in the digital age while retaining the rights of consumers. One, by Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, D-S.C., would require government-mandated anti-copying mechanisms in all new consumer electronic devices. Another, by Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., would allow intellectual property owners to use technical measures, including spoofing and hacking into sharing systems, to prevent copyright infringement.

Shapiro said such requirements would stifle technological development and "put a chokehold on the free flow of information."

But Fox Entertainment Group's Ronald Wheeler, who said he and the RIAA representative were the "designated points of attack" at the event, said all new entertainment technology required a balanced approach between market forces and government oversight. For example, he said DVDs would not exist today if it weren't for the DMCA, which assuaged industry fears that they would lose control of their content forever. He said the bill gave the industry the ability to go after illegal hackers.

Wheeler said the industry would take a similar approach when it comes to digital television. "You don't get the programming and no restrictions on what you can do with it. The free lunch does not operate in copyright."

RIAA representative Mitch Glazier seconded that notion, saying pleas for fair use rights mask a desire for widespread stealing of digital content. "Anybody who doesn't want to talk about this as a stealing problem hasn't created anything," he said.

Meanwhile, Wade Randlett, of consumer rights group DigitalConsumer.org, said the entertainment industry's efforts have criminalized behavior that used to be legal, including letting teenagers excerpt portions of copyrighted works for book reports.

He told the story of a friend whose daughter wanted to compose a multimedia report for school. Because she could not legally obtain an excerpt from a DVD, she ended up using material whose copy control mechanisms had been cracked with a program that courts have ruled illegal. The student, he said, "put it on a disk, took it to school, and committed a felony."

Such examples, he said, are evidence that "there is a war on against consumers."