© Still Seeking Proper Balance
by Dick Kaser
Late last summer, the U.S. Copyright Office finally released its 2009 rulings that specified which classes of works will be exempt (for the next 3 years) from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) restrictions on circumventing copyright protection devices and systems. I was as unimpressed by the rulings as I was by healthcare reform.
On the latter, I really hoped for regulations that would prevent my insurance company from hassling me every time I go for a medical procedure, get my routine blood work done, or pick up my prescriptions at the pharmacy. Alas, all I found was more insurance companies.
On the former, I hoped for a determination that copies I pay for are mine to do with as I please. But I didn’t get anything, unless I happen to be a film major, in which case, I can legally crack the DRM on a DVD to lift a brief video clip for use in a noncommercial critical review for the next 3 years. (But that is already covered by DMCA’s fair use provisions.)
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) apparently would like to have seen some stronger changes in the DMCA too. Perhaps because it was tired of suing individual music enthusiasts for copyright infringement, RIAA recently put the heat on information service providers (ISPs), those vendors who enjoy a particularly high level of protection against charges of copyright infringement under the DMCA statute.
In its most recent push, RIAA joined other associations in issuing a joint statement to Google and Verizon encouraging these giant internet service providers to crack down on pirated content, even though DMCA as written does not require them to do so.
The White House even joined in during recent months, issuing its 2010 Joint (agency) Strategic Plan on Intellectual Property Enforcement at the start of the summer. The document leads off with President Barack Obama saying, “[W]e’re going to aggressively protect our intellectual property. Our single greatest asset is the innovation and the ingenuity and creativity of the American People.”
But the following two facets of this talk about American creativity have impressed me the most with regard to intellectual property developments over the last 2 months:
A group of media companies, including Warner Bros., FOX, and NBC, banded together to address one of the stickiest copyright issues of them all a couple of years ago, namely, why can’t I read, watch, or play the content I have purchased for one device on any other. But a new file format standard was unveiled, which theoretically will let purchasers of content get to use what they bought.
In a similar vein, I was also very impressed by the announcement that the IEEE Standard Association was going to develop IEEE P1817, which was described as “a new standard for consumer-ownable digital personal property … a standard for the creation, distribution, and perpetual consumer-ownership of downloadable items of copyrighted works, such as movies, music, books, and games.”
Now we’re suddenly talking about what I and other content users want to talk about.
Seriously, if publishers, studios, and labels want to protect copyright as if the medium of expression is bound paper, engraved vinyl, and 35mm film, then it would only be fair if those of us who obtained legal copies of these digital works could own them just as much as we owned books, records, and reels. We wouldn’t own them temporarily, we’d own them permanently.
If I were to have testified to the Copyright Office about the classes of works that DRM prevents me from using fairly, I would have had to say “everything,” because in a digital world, a copy lasts only as long as the technology it’s stored on, and that is not very long these days.
As a consumer, I am particularly irritated when I have to purchase a new copy of a favorite work just because I have switched (or have been forced to switch) devices, operating systems, or platforms. For copyright to be fair, it needs to not only recognize the rights of the copyright owners but of the copy owners as well.
I like the idea that is being advocated in various circles lately, and I hope it becomes tomorrow’s model for content distribution: Buy a work once, own it, and use it again and again on whatever device you choose.
If we’re looking for balance in copyright law for the digital age, I guess that is as good as it’s going to get.