RealTime IT News

New Clashes Await Over Digital Copyright

WASHINGTON -- Of the many tech issues the new Congress is expected to consider, few are more controversial than reform to the digital copyright system.

On one side: open-Internet advocates who feel that copyright law has failed to keep up with Web 2.0-era content distribution. On another side are traditional media industries who argue that rampant infringement is taking money out of artists' pockets, and theirs.

Plenty more sides exist in the debate but these two squared off at the State of the Net conference here. It was sponsored by the Congressional Internet Caucus, a private-sector coalition that works with Congress on IT issues.

"The idea is that the current copyright regime does not match the technological advances in our society and the way people actually use technology, and it's time to make it work," said Gigi Sohn, president of the digital-rights group Public Knowledge.

Sohn's group advocates for a loosening of existing copyright laws to allow greater freedom in sharing, repurposing and building on people's creative works.

Providing a firm counterpoint to Sohn's argument was Alec French, senior counsel for NBC Universal. French warned that users who steal copyrighted works are eroding the value of a vibrant industry at a time when the economy is in crisis.

"If our economy's going to get out of this rut, we need to be focusing on how to help the creative industries play a part and remain strong and sound," he said.

French said that traditional media companies have warmed up to the Web in their own way, developing innovative new models for monetizing their content in the digital era. As an example he cited Hulu, a joint venture between NBC and Fox parent News Corp., where premium television content is available online supported by pre- and mid-roll ads.

French and Daryl Friedman, vice president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, expressed support for the Pro-IP Act, which President Bush signed into law in October. In addition to increasing the penalties for copyright infringement, the law authorizes the creation of a so-called IP czar, who would coordinate the various government agencies' efforts to combat piracy.

Friedman sought to downplay the concerns of Sohn and others who worry that the position could have an extensive role in crafting overly aggressive copyright policy, rather than the more narrow focus on interagency coordination.

"We sometimes overestimate what this is by [using] the word 'czar,'" he said. "If it was really a copyright czar, then illegal file sharers would be lined up and shot."

Additionally, Friedman, whose group represents recording artists, said he looks forward to a renewed push to pass the Performance Rights Act, which would increase the fees broadcasters would pay artists for airing their songs. The bill was introduced in the House and Senate in December 2007, but stalled in committee in both chambers.

If the debate over copyright policy weren't thorny enough on its own, it drags into play the always contentious issue of network neutrality.

Sohn warned that anti-piracy measures could cast Internet service providers in the role of "copyright cops." She cited the recent announcement from the Recording Industry Association of America that it would no longer sue individual infringers, and instead partner with ISPs to detect piracy on their networks.

In the so-called "graduated response" plan (which Sohn called "shock and awe"), the RIAA would inform ISPs when it detected illegal file-sharing, and they would then notify the subscriber, threatening to slow and eventually stop service if the infringement continued.

Even the most sophisticated filtering technologies could produce false positives, Sohn said.

"I'll say right here and now that automatic filtering and shock and awe -- that's a violation of Net neutrality," she said. "Just because filters may be accurate, the times they're not accurate can be very dangerous," she added, claiming that inadvertent blocking of lawful content is a violation of free speech.

To French and Friedman, that argument is unconvincing.

"We don't want Net neutrality to mean piracy is equal to legitimate commerce," Friedman said. "If that's the definition of neutrality, then that's not good for our guys."

Aaron Cooper, an advisor to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, (D-Vt.), said Congress plans to consider piracy and automatic filtering when it revisits Net neutrality legislation this session.