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Siggraph: Taking on fair use, privacy and DRM

Sony, the Software Freedom Law Center and others weigh in on digital rights management.

BOSTON--"More choice for you" is the argument a Sony executive repeatedly made when questioned about digital rights management during an open-mic panel at Siggraph, a computer graphics industry conference taking place here this week.

The panel let conference attendees question Sony directly about its digital rights management (DRM) policies, and attendees and panelists weren't shy about expressing their views.

Given the ease with which music, video and other information are distributed digitally, DRM in some form or fashion is necessary to ensure such material is bought and sold fairly and copyrights are protected, said Mitch Singer, executive vice president of the digital policy group at Sony Pictures Entertainment.

"I think fair play protected Steve Jobs' ability to protect his hardware so that he could sell it for a lot more money. To allow consumers to have choice to listen, buy or (participate in) subscription models--there is no way around it unless you have a new system of DRM," Singer said.

In addition to Singer, the "Digital Rights, Digital Restrictions" panel discussion featured Karen Sandler, an attorney from the Software Freedom Law Center; Emru Townsend, founding editor of Frames Per Second magazine and a contributor to PC World's Digital World blog; and Robert Ryang, a film student who has created satirical adaptations of copyrighted films for the Independent Film Channel. But it was Singer who got the most questions.

"The music industry was successful in shutting down Napster and, but you have to ask yourself: Wouldn't they (record companies) have been better off if they had done deals with them? We (the film industry) are not smarter than the music industry; there but for the grace of bandwidth go us," Singer said in his opening remarks.

A barrage from the audience
Singer repeatedly tried to emphasize that Sony plans to work with the changing dynamic of content and consumers as technology makes content transfer easier. But the audience, familiar with many of the arguments in favor of digital rights management, was well armed with questions and complaints.

Many expressed anger over as a means of protecting copyright.

"I am not here to talk about rootkit. Symantec had been using it before Sony BMG, and there was not this outcry," said Singer.

Questions from Siggraph attendees also concerned their annoyance with regional coding, which prevents people from playing DVDs from one region of the world on a DVD player in another, even though the customer purchased the DVDs legally.

"Your industry's argument for coding is to control the release dates of films from one country to the next, but it's still there on a 20- or 30-year-old film," one Siggraph attendee complained.

A case for interoperability
Singer shared an anecdote of how he, too, had been frustrated by regional coding. He took the question as an opportunity to point out Sony's support of interoperability for content--an approach that would allow movies or music to be played on more than one type of device, according to Singer. He was critical of Apple Computer's iTunes when it came to interoperability, something he said he believed was going to be the key to the future of content.

"The problem with DRM now is that we have no interoperability. When iTunes consumers realize that they just spent all this money and then a new gadget comes out from Sony or Microsoft or Samsung...I think there is going to be a revolt when they realize they will not be able to transfer that content to that device. Protect content, but make it transferable," said Singer.

His main argument for digital rights management was that it allows consumers greater choice in how they consume content.

"When I think of DRM I think of enabling new offerings to the consumer. Maybe a consumer wants to watch a movie, and for that the price may be $1.99, for someone who wants to own it the price will be $9.99, or around there, depending on the product," said Singer.

But both Townsend and Sandler pointed out to Singer that technological models without DRM already exist to provide that option, and that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act may be overreaching in the ways it protects copyright and the mechanisms designed to do it, even if the mechanisms prevent fair use.

"DMCA means that even if a court agreed you can make a copy for personal use, it's illegal to crack the code," said Townsend.

"I am deeply suspicious of DRM technology in part because the DRM we see now says that it protects copyright law, but it also prevents legitimate use, for parody, news and education. (It) is overbroad for legitimate use. As the restriction stands now, when public material falls in to the public domain, the DRM tech stays in place and does not fall away. DRM also has the potential to compromise privacy and security," said Sandler.

Singer acknowledged that there will always be piracy from "those who have more time than money," such as college students, but that Sony's aim is to make content convenient and reasonably priced and reasonably restricted enough to prevent general working consumers from going to other channels.

While most agreed that such an aim would probably work, Townsend warned that Sony should take cultural attitudes into account. While anime fans stopped burning and distributing the Japanese films once they were available in the U.S., said Townsend, it was done in large part because the fan base had a respect for the anime industry. The contempt held by most young digital consumers for large corporate content providers may carry over into their adulthood, he said.

"Every year, millions of analog consumers die and millions of digital consumers come into the marketplace, and we have to deal with them," Singer said, noting that it was his job to remind Sony executives of that fact.

The discussion went on for almost two hours and didn't often stray from concerns about fair and personal use, privacy and rights protection for digital content. The criticism of Sony and its industry was fierce, considering the audience consisted of computer graphics industry professionals, who themselves benefit from the protections of copyright laws. There was one source of consumer irritation, however, that Singer did not even try to defend.

"Why, when I buy a DVD, am I forced to watch commercials?" an audience member asked.

"I know. I agree. I'm with you there," Singer said, laughing.