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Digital rights under fire

IP Justice founder Robin Grossexplains why consumers are at increasing risk of legal prosecution for doing things like making personal copies of CDs, DVDs and e-books.

6 min read
Robin Gross thinks international copyright laws are out of step with the people. So much so that the former Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney is launching a new watchdog group called IP Justice.

Her goal is to "promote balance in global intellectual property law." Gross says she wants to make sure people won't become targets of legal action for doing things like making personal copies of CDs, DVDs and e-books they've purchased.

Gross, who's officially unveiling the project in the next couple of weeks, envisions uniting programmers and online activists across the globe to make sure consumers get a fair shake in the copyright debate. She talked with CNET News.com about how digital technology is changing copyright law, why technologists and consumers should be concerned, and why she thinks the United States is one of the most "restrictive regimes" in this area.

Q: Why did you found IP Justice?
A: I felt like there was a real need to connect the like-minded groups all over the world who are battling against the expansion of copyrights and are concerned about protecting freedom of expression.

How will IP Justice differ from other online activist groups?
We'll differ in that our focus will be on international IP law. I think our focus will also be a little bit different because we're going to be principle-based. One of the frustrations that so many people have expressed to me is that the laws are just being bought and paid for by Hollywood in the intellectual property space, and they're so out of step with the public's principles about what's fair and what's just.

I really don't think that lawmakers have been given a fair hearing about what the public's rights are and what the public's concerns are.

What will some of those principles be?
One is the idea that we should have the right to control our own individual experience of creative works. When we're in the privacy of our own homes, and we're using DVDs or CDs that we own on the computers that we own, that Hollywood doesn't have a right to tell us how we can use that media. It's our property and our rights as global citizens to receive and express and impart information without the interference of the copyright holders.

How about another one?
We have the right to make personal private copies of lawfully acquired works. So if I buy a CD, I should have an affirmative right to make a personal-use copy of that without breaking any laws by attempting to make a copy. Unfortunately, the United States has a very dismal track record right now for protection of freedom in this area. It's truly ironic that the United States has such an international reputation as being the leader in freedom of speech, but when it comes to intellectual property, it's actually one of the most restrictive regimes in terms of what people can do with their intellectual property.

Practically, how do you see this list of principles promoting this balance that you seek?
The idea is to get groups and individuals from all over the world to sign onto to these principles, to endorse these principles, and we can sort of hold the lawmakers in check in that we can say these are our principles and you can compare them to the laws and see that there's a difference. Laws are going to have to change in some cases, and that's really the ultimate goal of releasing these principles--to get the lawmakers to understand the will of the public when it comes to intellectual property issues.

And you don't think they do right now?
I really don't think that lawmakers have been given a fair hearing about what the public's rights are and what the public's concerns are. They've got a very close connection with the Hollywood lobbyists, and their position seems to very closely reflect the views of the Hollywood executives. So I think they need to be reminded of the public and what they expect of lawmakers when it comes to protecting their civil rights and their civil liberties.

What about intellectual property holders such as the movie studios, the record labels and the software makers--don't they have a right to exert more control over their digital works when it's so easy to duplicate and transmit them to vast amounts of people?
You've only pointed out one half of the way that digital technology changes the picture. Sure, it makes it easier for people to copy and share works, but digital technology also makes it easier for copyright holders to restrict what people can do with their works. So it's not fair to say that this technology is...very harmful to these industries because it's actually providing them with more power than they've ever had before to control what people can do with their works. That point is often overlooked--that they're controlling it to the point that they're taking away from the public side of the copyright bargain.

So while it's not fair for consumers to copy and distribute copyright works in a fashion that doesn't compensate the creators, it's also not fair for the creators to use digital technology to take away the rights of the public. For example, making sure these works fall into the public domain at some point, or making sure that consumers are able to exercise their fair-use rights. It's simply not fair for the copyright holders to take all of the rights and have none of the responsibilities associated with copyright law.

My biggest fear is that there's so much momentum in terms of legislation and building technological restrictions that we'll be too late to stop the tide.

How do you see the tension between copyright owners and technologists playing out? Can be it be resolved through the legislatures, courts or the marketplace?
It's really a mixture of all of the above. I think countries that are trying to pass laws very similar to the United States' Digital Millennium Copyright Act have met a lot of resistance from civil rights groups and programming groups, so there is some resistance at that level. In other cases as the laws get passed, the best way to challenge it might be through a court challenge. I expect we'll see some of those in Europe in the coming years as the EU copyright directive takes effect and Europeans lose their right to be able to make personal copies or reverse-engineer, or that sort of thing.

The marketplace will also be one factor that will have a tremendous impact on what ultimately happens here. The technology companies want to be able to build devices that consumers want to use, which include lots of consumer friendly features, things like copying music. There's a real incentive for technology companies to build those kind of devices, but there's also a lot of pressure from the copyright holders to restrict those kind of devices.

Are there any countries that have views about intellectual properties that you like, and alternatively, which countries have the "worst" IP laws in your view?
I'll start with who has the worst IP laws, because that's actually the easiest. It's the United States. When it comes to the traditional balance we've had between copyright and freedom of expression, it's been completely done away with in the last couple of years. It's been replaced by a regime where the content industry has total control over what people can do with their e-books, CDs, DVDs and that sort of thing. With the passage of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and subsequent enforcement, the United States has some of the most restrictive views on what people can do with their works. Anyone doing a good job?
I don't know that I can say anyone is doing a good job, but there are a lot of countries that are trying to put forth some resistance to this maximalist IP agenda that Hollywood is imposing on the rest of the world. I think there are groups in Germany and France that are working hard to stop similar laws that are being pushed there, but it's too early in the game to see what's effective and what's not.

What's your biggest fear?
That we're too late. My biggest fear is that there's so much momentum in terms of legislation and building technological restrictions that we'll be too late to stop the tide from heading in that direction of total control over what people can do with their intellectual property. Hollywood has been working at this for many, many years and has very strong coalitions and connections to lawmakers in different countries, so it's well ahead of the game in terms of being organized and having an agenda to push.