July 2002

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Copyright Protection in the Digital Age

by Eric Green

Today's technologies are changing continually and at a lightening-fast pace. Technological advancement has brought us both high-quality digital content as well as devices for easily managing that content. As a result, tasks that were once difficult or impossible to accomplish  or staggeringly expensive  are now simple, affordable and even commonplace. But in this Information Age, has sharing become too easy?

Today, music enthusiasts can buy their favorite audio CDs, "rip" the tracks into digital files on a personal computer (PC), and upload them to a personal digital assistant (PDA) for a little musical enjoyment anytime, anywhere. When consumers purchase a CD, they are purchasing the rights to its contents for their own "fair use," provided that they do not attempt to distribute or profit from possession of that media. The same right applies to movies, periodicals and other copyrighted material.

Today's ease of legally manipulating digital media has come with the increased potential for illegal distribution of that media. For example, a consumer can digitally retrieve audio tracks from a legally purchased CD and copy them onto a PC. With a few swift mouse clicks, that same person can e-mail the entire CD to a friend. Since the recipient no longer needs to buy that CD, the company that sells the CD, the production company that distributes the CD, and the band that made the CD have all lost money. This illegal distribution is termed "piracy" and it is costing media corporations billions of dollars each year in lost revenue from copyrighted materials. 

According to the Intellectual Property Protection Act of 2002 (H.R. 5057), introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) on 27 June, Congress estimates that in 2001, the United States entertainment software industry lost $1,800,000,000 in revenue, and the business software industry lost $11,000,000,000 worldwide, due to piracy. Congress also estimated that in 2001, the motion picture industry lost $3,000,000,000 in potential worldwide revenue, the music industry lost $4,300,000,000 worldwide, and the publishing industry lost $636,000,000 worldwide, due to piracy  not including losses due to online piracy

No Simple Remedy

Currently, no foolproof solution exists for curbing the piracy problem. In the past few years, content providers have begun to incorporate Digital Rights Management (DRM) technologies on their products. From movie files that can only be played on a specific computer to DVDs with Content Scramble System (CSS) encryption, DRM is slowly showing up in consumer products. Protection measures like these can help prevent the illegal reproduction of media, which, in turn, reduces illegal distribution.

Part of the success of DRM technology stems from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). This revision to copyright law was ratified so that the United States could meet the standards of a World Trade Organization treaty seeking unification of global copyright law to strengthen the rights of copyright owners  media corporations included. A DMCA provision makes circumventing DRM technology illegal, even for fair use purposes. Furthermore, trafficking in circumvention methods, whether they involve software or hardware, is also illegal.

When CSS was cracked by a program called DeCSS  a CSS descrambling algorithm  the DVD Copy Control Association (DVD CCA) aggressively pursued criminal prosecution of companies that violated 'trade secret' laws protecting the CSS code and the information contained on CSS-encrypted DVDs. They also went after web sites that posted the DeCSS program or pointed to places where it could be found on the Internet. Such legal protection is one reason DVDs have enjoyed so much success in recent years  content providers feel safe releasing digital content in DVD format.

Although DRM is proving successful, digital content providers feel that still more needs to be done to protect their intellectual property. Since hackers constantly try to crack all types of DRM  and consistently succeed  some in industry are calling for the government to step in and set mandatory copyright protection standards.

Would Government Intervention Work?

One notable government response is Sen. Ernest Hollings' (D-S.C.) Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act. Hollings' plan would require all "digital media devices" (computers, CD players, DVD players, digital televisions, etc.) to have an onboard "standard security technology" that prevents either the copy of digital media or the playback of copied digital media. Hollings proposes getting the key players in the technology and media industries together. They would have one year to discuss and decide on a solution to illegal copying before the government jumps in and enacts Hollings' or another viable plan.

What does this mean? If negotiations fail, the technology industry must implement federally mandated hardware that prevents playback of illegal content. Experts say that requiring new onboard copy protection devices would severely hamper innovation. Developers would have to spend a considerable amount of time re-engineering products to adhere to the new standard. Furthermore, as technology advances, onboard copyright devices would continually have to change to keep pace. Thus, government regulation is nearly impossible. For all intents and purposes, the Hollings bill has already been killed, but similar legislation promises to keep cropping up as long as industry is unable to find a viable solution.

What About Fair Use?

What do security measures like DRM and onboard copy control mechanisms do to fair use? For one, the example of someone copying songs from a legally obtained CD onto a portable device would no longer be possible. CD manufacturers are already making CDs with DRM that cannot be played on a computer; as a result, digital pirates cannot misuse the songs. At the same time, however, fair use of these CDs is impeded because songs cannot be transferred onto other devices for personal use either. Is fair use a right or a luxury? Questions such as this are common and illustrate the complex issues associated with the copyright protection debate.

Sen. Hollings' Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act serves as a wake-up call to the technology industry rather than a threat. It seems that the main problem that's hampering the adoption of an actual solution to digital content rights is that the technology industry and the content providers both refuse to budge from their antithetical positions, and so the debate remains at a continual impasse. All involved in the debate agree, however, that the controversial issue of copyright protection needs a timely and sensible resolution so that the interests of consumers as well as industry will be best served.  Copyright owners and consumers alike need protection, and the sooner the better   for everyone.



Eric Green, a junior electrical engineering student at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, is IEEE-USA's Intellectual Property Committee intern.



Copyright 2003, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.