Tech heavies support challenge to copyright law

Sun and others in new group throw weight behind bill that would make it legal to crack protection schemes.

Declan McCullagh
Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
3 min read
The copyright cold war between Hollywood and Silicon Valley is about to heat up.

Skirmishes between content-producing companies seeking expansive copyright protections and hardware and telecommunications corporations on the other side have resulted in a legislative deadlock on Capitol Hill.

Some of the most influential technology companies are planning to announce on Tuesday an alliance that they hope will end the impasse. Called the Personal Technology Freedom Coalition, its purpose is to coordinate lobbying efforts in opposition--at least initially--to the most controversial section of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Currently, that controversial section of the DMCA broadly says no one may bypass a copy-protection scheme or distribute any product that is "primarily designed or produced for the purpose of circumventing" copy protection. The movie industry, record labels and many software publishers are fiercely protective of that section of the law, saying that digital rights management, or DRM, systems backed up by the law are necessary to reduce piracy.

But members of the nascent coalition, including Sun Microsystems, Verizon Communications, SBC, Qwest, Gateway and BellSouth, are lending their support to a proposal by Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., to rewrite that part of the DMCA. Boucher's bill says that descrambling utilities can be distributed, and copy protection can be circumvented as long as no copyright infringement is taking place.

One participant in the coalition, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said its members already have met with representatives of more than 20 congressional offices. Their sales pitch: Beyond harming "fair use" rights, the DMCA also endangers computer research vital to national security.

Other members of the coalition include: Philips Consumer Electronics North America, the Consumer Electronics Association, the American Library Association, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America, Public Knowledge, the American Foundation for the Blind, the United States Telecom Association, and the Computer and Communications Industry Association.

Boucher's bill, called the Digital Media Consumers' Rights Act, would also grant the Federal Trade Commission new authority to regulate copy-protected compact discs. It gives FTC bureaucrats the power to police music sales by ensuring that copy-protected discs are labeled as such and are not simply called "CDs," which could be misleading to consumers. Such labels would have to say that the copy-protected discs might not play properly in standard CD players, and that they might not be recordable on PCs or other devices that can record standard CDs.

U.S. record labels have been slower than their European and Asian counterparts to add copy locks to releases in the American market, fearful of consumer backlash and complaints about incompatibility. But the top seller in last week's stores, the debut album by hard rock act Velvet Revolver, was wrapped in antipiracy technology.

Industry insiders said the album's success despite prominently displayed stickers warning that it was "protected against unauthorized duplication" was likely to lead to more copy-protected releases in the United States. Still, earlier this month, Universal Music decided to stop adding the technology to discs sold in Germany, according to Billboard magazine, a potential sign that regulations regarding labeling could discourage some record companies from using DRM for fear of losing buyers.

Regardless, Boucher's drive to grant the Federal Trade Commission new authority to regulate copy-protected discs with labels has drawn criticism from at least one group that otherwise applauds Boucher's goal of amending the DMCA. The free-market Cato Institute, which convened a conference that Boucher spoke at last week, called the proposed FTC powers another big government power grab.

"Bringing in the government to impose certain types of mandatory labeling schemes or new technological mandates is a little bit troubling to us," said Adam Thierer, Cato's director of telecommunications studies. "A lot of this seems to be an anti-DRM backlash that's developed as part of the Boucher bill. We've had groups say that DRM is the devil, that by locking up content, private interests have gained too much control over copyright."

To Thierer, it's far better to treat the race to scramble and descramble content as a kind of market competition that should be unfettered by the DMCA--or new FTC rules: "The better approach is to let content owners lock up their work, but (to) take away the advantage that the DMCA gives them."

CNET News.com's John Borland contributed to this report.