Get Your Head Examined!

I find it amusing that the Consumer Electronics Show occurred just days before a landmark ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that keeps modern media content (anything created after 1923) locked up and kept away from the public domain until roughly the year 2018.

Just days before this decision, hardware companies great and small were busy in Las Vegas hawking their latest wares designed to help consumers store, distribute or enjoy digital content either quickly through wires or conveniently without. The cost of burning DVDs is likely to fall this year, and before the year is out, consumers may be able to carry around movies on a personal media player.

But the 7-2 decision in the “Eldred v Ashcroft” case upholding the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) leads me to question: What exactly are we supposed to record on these devices? At least legally?

“That’s a good question,” said Fred von Lohmann, senior staff attorney at Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Everyone will use these devices to trade files without authorization.”

It makes you wonder if the mood would have soured if the ruling had come before the CES show. Is it any surprise that Consumer Electronics Association President and CEO Gary Shapiro issued a statement expressing his disappointment with the justices’ decision?

Let me make one thing clear: I don’t have a problem with the Supreme Court’s ruling. The justices were just doing their job. All they had to do was examine whether or not Congress overstepped its authority when it passed CTEA in 1998. But it’s not a question of whether Congress could, it’s whether it should. CTEA flies in the face of the Constitutional statutes for “limited times”. (Click on the link and check out the line that begins: “To promote the progress of science and useful arts…”)

I am not a communist. While I certainly wouldn’t claim to be an artist, I believe that artists do deserve to profit from their work and that creativity should be rewarded. But the defenders of intellectual property (IP) have overstepped their bounds.

One such organization, for example, the Music Publishers’ Association (MPA) currently is engaged in a campaign dubbed “Copy-free Zone”. Apparently inspired by the “drug-free zone” campaign that is trying to keep drugs out of our schools, this MPA campaign wants schools to put an end to “photocopying,” which, according to MPA, is “having a crippling effect.”

Having a crippling effect on whom? Are you telling me that — at a time when music programs in public schools are being slashed due to severe budget constraints of crisis proportions, the MPA is going to rake a music teacher over the coals for downloading sheet music from the Internet? Are you kidding me!?

The MPA writes on its Web site: “Music education is facing a crisis, and unfortunately, the writers and composers of much of the school music repertoire are suffering the most.” WRONG! Don’t you think students or educators might be suffering a bit more?

Clearly, some content belongs in the public domain and some does not. Tom Broido, President of the Music Publishers’ Association, if you’re reading this column…get that embarrassing propaganda off of your Web site!

The most ironic thing is Hollywood and those parties that champion the CTEA are really only shooting themselves in the foot. Their attempts to control the distribution of content through digital rights management (DRM) will ultimately lead to the proliferation of illegal content by driving more usage of sites which allow for the sharing of illegal content.

“I honestly think DRM encourages the activities that Hollywood wants to stop,” von Lohmann said. “I think DRM is a very short-sighted approach and one that does nothing but harm consumers…The answer is they need to come up with a good business model.”

Or to quote Princess Leia: “The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.”

Our Constitution has already mandated that a limit be set on copyright protection. Heavy-handed controls won’t stop the development and deployment of technology that’s capable of circumventing it. Yet folks like Broido, Motion Picture Association of America President Jack Valenti and The Walt Disney Co. continue to hide behind the law in the name of greed.

I ask them: How long should copyrights last?

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