Salon on the Broadcat Flag

Hurrah! Count on Salon (rather than Wired, it appears) to stake a position on this issue: Hollywood to the computer industry: We don’t need no stinking Napsters!

The MPAA is counting on your apathy. It’s precisely because the flag seems, on the surface, so innocuous that the studios are having an easy time pushing it to regulators in Washington. And the regulators are biting: According to close observers of the process, the Federal Communications Commission will soon adopt a rule requiring all technologies capable of receiving digital TV signals — everything from HDTV sets to DVD players to general-purpose PCs — to recognize and protect flagged TV shows.

If adopted, such a rule is sure to cause a great deal of hand-wringing in the PC industry, which is, increasingly, counting on the convergence between entertainment and computing to push sales. The last thing hardware manufacturers want is for Hollywood to be able to legislate how computers are put together. According to people familiar with the rule the FCC is pondering, the broadcast flag would force all computer companies to make a stark choice: Either add digital television capabilities to their machines and then, as some critics of Hollywood say, “weld the hood shut,” making sure that everything else in the PC — the DVD recorder, the hard drive — is sealed with copy-protection, or stay away from HDTV altogether, sacrificing sales.

This, critics say, illustrates the real danger posed by the broadcast flag; if the mandate were just another rule governing TVs, the flag wouldn’t be very objectionable. But this rule is targeted at computers, an industry that thrives on the freedom to tinker. “I’m old enough to remember a time when everybody opened up their system,” says Mike Godwin, an attorney at Public Knowledge, a digital-rights lobbying group that has been among the fiercest opponents of the broadcast flag. “Now, what I’m being told is that in order for my computer to be integrated, it has to no longer be user-modifiable.” Godwin, who is not shy about his obsession with “Buffy,” adds: “If they destroy television, I’ll be upset, but I can live with that. But if they destroy the computer revolution I’m going to be pretty pissed off.”

International Fronts in the “Cyberpiracy” War

Two articles – CNet’s Cyberpiracy north of the border and the NYTimes’ Brazil Becomes a Cybercrime Lab tell some tales of international digital copyright regimes.

The Canadian article points out some of these differences in an interview with Michael Geist:

A big reason for the lack of lawsuits against file swappers is Canada’s different legal system, which provides additional protections for peer-to-peer downloaders.

[…] Q: Can Canadians legally download copyrighted music from peer-to-peer networks?

A: The short answer is: Nobody knows for sure. But the issue is far murkier than in other jurisdictions like the United States. The key provision in Canada’s copyright legislation is a private copyright exemption that lets Canadians make private copies for noncommercial use. The way we justify the exemption is by way of a levy that applies to blank media such as blank CDs and blank audio cassettes.

With the exemption, there are many who believe that those who download music for noncommercial purposes from P2P networks could avail themselves of this legal defense. This has never been tested in court. The recording industry is of the opinion that this violates the spirit of the law if not the letter.

The article on Brazil is focused on hackers showing how to break (and defend) online information — with such success because the country is so thoroughly lawless in this regard:

While impressive, Mr. Assunçào’s hacking talents are hardly unique in Brazil, where organized crime is rife and laws to prevent digital crime are few and largely ineffective. The country is becoming a laboratory for cybercrime, with hackers – able to collaborate with relative impunity – specializing in identity and data theft, credit card fraud and piracy, as well as online vandalism.

A Creepy Story

Take this story, Want to Be Interviewed on the Radio? Well, Just Pay Up., mix in a little media consolidation, and get ready to scare yourself for Halloween.

The caller to Joanne Doroshow’s office last month described himself as working for Sky Radio Network, a company that produces programming for Forbes Radio, one of the audio channels available to passengers on American Airlines.

As the executive director of the Center for Justice and Democracy, a nonprofit organization that casts itself as a champion of consumer rights, Ms. Doroshow was asked if she would be interviewed for a talk show examining the issue of tort reform. When Ms. Doroshow agreed, she said, the caller informed her that it would cost her organization $5,900 to have its point of view heard. When Ms. Doroshow balked, she said, the caller offered to see if it could be reduced to $3,500.

[…] Ms. Doroshow was so angry that she directed lawyers for the center, whose board includes Erin Brockovich and Ralph Nader, to draft a complaint letter to the Federal Trade Commission, which the center intends to submit today. It asks that Sky Radio, which also produces programming for United, Delta, Northwest and several other airlines, be required to disclose prominently that its news-style programs are actually little more than paid advertisements.

NYTimes on the Broadcast Flag Fight

From today’s NYTimes: Critics Press Case on TV Privacy Rules [pdf] (By the way, does Microsoft word just routinely convert “piracy” into “privacy?” There have been a bunch of these malapropisms in the press lately. Anyone know?)

But the proposed regulations, which the Federal Communications Commission may adopt this week, have been criticized by consumer advocacy groups, and others, who say they would not effectively prevent piracy but could curtail the legitimate copying of television programs and might render current consumer electronics equipment obsolete.

[…] Groups including the Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America, the American Antitrust Institute, and Public Knowledge have joined with some equipment makers to challenge the rules. They say that the broadcast flag would unfairly curtail the ability of consumers to legally share programs or record them for later viewing. They say the flag would force consumers to scrap older DVD players and computers for newer ones. And they say that the proposal, if adopted, would stifle technological innovation by giving Hollywood too much of a say over the technical aspects of future equipment products.

They also say the new rules have a loophole that would ultimately make them ineffective in combating piracy. Critics say a consumer could get around the rules by taking the analog signals, copying the programs and then easily converting back into digital format for distribution over the Internet.

[…] “While broadcast flag supporters claim that the regulations will only impact DTV sets, the flag, as proposed, would also require the F.C.C. to regulate personal computers, handheld devices, CD burners, hard drives and a wide range of other information-technology and consumer-electronic devices,” said a recent paper by Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group that studies digital property rights and technology. “The flag will impact a wide range of consumer devices not under the F.C.C.’s jurisdiction.”

Wired News’ Shame Piece on the Broadcast Flag

Did they hear the complaining about their regurgitation of that wire service article last week? Who knows, but here’s their response: A Case of Piracy Overkill?

Fred von Lohmann, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the movie industry fought in court for eight years to try to make it illegal for users to copy TV shows with their VCR. He said the industry is simply trying to find new ways to encroach on fair use, an individual’s right to use copyright material in a reasonable manner without the consent of the copyright owner.

“They know that trying to take that fair use away from millions of Americans is way too unpopular, even though they would if they could,” von Lohmann said. “So what they want to do is freeze things so that consumers don’t get any new fair-use capabilities in the future.”

[…] “The mandate comes with all kinds of obligations about what kinds of features you’re allowed to offer with your product and how they must be implemented, and the people who control those requirements are the Hollywood movie studios and other technology and consumer electronic companies,” he said. “It creates an environment where small innovators who are not willing to compromise for someone else’s business model essentially get shut out.”

He pointed to DVD technology as an example of what happens when technology is controlled by a particular group.

“In order to interoperate with DVD, you have to sign on with a bunch of agreements and private licensing arrangements under the auspices of the DVD forum,” he said. “There’s been no new feature added to DVD players since their introduction. And that’s exactly the way Hollywood likes things to go.”

Valenti To Step Down?

Looks like Ernest and Mary got the Slashdot treatment yesterday, based on the links to their weblogs in this bit of industry news: Valenti to Step Down; Tauzin May Head MPAA. Note that the Times article on Valenti is only suggestive: The Man Who Unites the Moguls, Looking Ahead [pdf].

Whether the recent controversy and its resolution will hasten Mr. Valenti’s decision to leave his Washington-based job and its seven-figure salary is uncertain.

“Could be next year,” he said when asked when he might step down. Between questions during lunch at the Peninsula Hotel here, Mr. Valenti waved at old friends, jumping up to embrace a frail Edie Wasserman, widow of the mogul Lew Wasserman, the man who brought Mr. Valenti to Hollywood in 1966 and was another mentor.

Despite Mr. Valenti’s long goodbye, his clients — the studios — don’t seem in any rush to push him out the door. Two executives who were major supporters of banning videotapes and DVD’s — Barry M. Meyer, chairman and chief executive of Warner Brothers Entertainment, and Peter Chernin, chairman and chief operating officer of the News Corporation, which owns the Fox entertainment group — said the job was Mr. Valenti’s for as long as he wanted it.

“Right now we’re in a life-and-death struggle against piracy,” Mr. Meyer said. “Jack has been tireless. He always does his homework. He knows what he’s talking about. He has made this organization remarkably effective.”

Globe Webcasting Article

On the other hand, webcasting is a blow against radio homogeneity, according to this Globe article: Netcasters bring diversity online [pdf]

It’s easy to get depressed about the state of broadcasting in the United States, especially if you flip on the radio during a long cruise down the interstate. After a while you begin to think that there’s just one radio station in the country, transmitting the same gray drivel clear across the AM and FM bands.

To feel better, climb out of the car and plug into the Net, where you meet a better class of broadcaster, people like Sean Mulrooney. In his day job, Mulrooney is a Seattle mortgage broker. Off duty, he’s a music DJ, specializing in free-form stuff: Alana Davis, the Chemical Brothers, samplings from the ’70s. Mulrooney streams the stuff across the Internet, living out his dream of being a radio broadcaster. Because he’s online, no country is out of range; the whole wired world can hear him.

Only 30 people actually do listen, but Mulrooney doesn’t mind.

“I’ve met fascinating people through this whole thing,” he said. “Lifelong friendships have been made, even though we’ll probably never meet.” Besides, he gets to call the tunes here, something he’ll never get to do at a commercial station.

Community and diversity — what more could you ask for?

Reinventing the Jukebox? Or rejecting digital over copyright?

Today’s Globe (and NPR‘s Morning Edition) discuss the startup of MIT’s LAMP project: Reinventing the jukebox on campus [pdf] (MIT press release). The trick to the project is that, while the digital telecommunications infrastructure is used to request the music, the music is actually delivered over an analog channel, avoiding the pitfalls of current copyright law when it comes to digital delivery.

Armed with a clever idea and a $60,000 grant from Microsoft Corp., two students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have wired the campus for sound. They’ve built a system to deliver popular music to student dormitories, without the illegal file swapping that’s goaded the recording industry into a furious round of copyright lawsuits.

[…] Winstein and Mandel never thought it would take so long to build LAMP. They soon discovered that building a system that would pass muster under federal copyright law is a lot more complicated than soldering circuit boards.

“We assumed that the technical part of doing this would be the hard part,” said [LAMP co-developer Keith] Winstein. “We were totally wrong.”

This strategy should scare the entertainment industries, not to mention the consumer electronics firms that have committed to digital delivery. This project shows that there is enough resistance to the current construction of copyright in the digital realm that people are prepared to design around the strictures, at the expense of the supposedly better technology. I believe that, if the FCC approves the broadcast flag, a similar response will arise in the television industry.

Consumer backlash is only going to get stronger, as the copyright industries continue to exploit the opportunities for increased control that digital telecomm offers them. And, as Phil Greenspun notes in this Globe article on Kodak’s plans to stop making slide projectors, there are more than just legal reasons to reject some of these technologies.

”It’s expensive, and there is a subtle loss of quality, like going from long-playing records to compact discs.”

Contrast this LAMP system with the Penn State system that Derek alerted me to last week: Spin Machine: Penn State’s Download Service. Although the article is skimpy on details, I love this bit from the president of the university:

“We like our approach to be educational in nature, not criminal,” [PSU president] Spanier said.

IMHO, understanding why the MIT system is legal might be even more educational! In particular, I can already think of one excellent economics question exploring the relative costs of (a) paying digital copyright licensing fees (and facing the legal lawsuit risks of a digital music network) and (b) building out the analog communications infrastructure.

(See this paper, by one of LAMP’s developers: Engineering an Accessible Music Library: Technical and Legal Challenge)

The NYTimes article includes a photo of the designers and a nice Zittrain quote: With Cable TV at M.I.T., Who Needs Napster? [pdf]

If that back-to-the-future solution seems overly complicated, blame copyright law and not M.I.T., said Jonathan Zittrain, who teaches Internet law at Harvard and is a director of the university’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. The most significant thing about the M.I.T. plan, he said, is just how complicated it has to be to fit within the odd boundaries of copyright law.

“It’s almost an act of performance art,” Mr. Zittrain said. Mr. Winstein, he said, has “arrayed the gerbils under the hood so it appears to meet the statutory requirement” – and has shown how badly the system of copyright needs sensible revamping.

Update: Slashdot discussion — MIT’s New Music Sharing Network. A particularly pointed comment:

How is this a good thing? (Score:1)

by no_choice (558243) on Monday October 27, @01:38PM (#7320571)

Let me get this straight: we already have numerous P2P networks through which people can freely share digital media. These guys have created a system that distributes ANALOG versions of digital songs; only distributes data deigned appropriate by a central authority; only distributes locally, not worldwide; only allows users to hear the music from their TV, and not move it elsewhere.

And this is supposed to be a good thing?

No wonder Microsoft is funding the research… creating “innovations” that make people’s lives worse instead of better seems to be their specialty.

The only “benefit” I can see from the MIT system over P2P file sharing is that the MIT system allows the RIAA executives to continue to harvest extreme wealth from the creativity of underpaid artists and the greed of contribution-hungry politician.

Instead of creating technical kludges that make our lives worse instead of better, would it not be better to junk the DMCA and other obsolete copyright laws bought and paid for by the RIAA and friends?