Monday, December 19, 2005

My letter to John Conyers

To my dismay, I read that John Conyers (yes, that John Conyers) has introduced The Digital Transition Content Security Act, which is the latest attempt by Hollywood to plug the "Analog Hole." I sent him this message:

Hello Mr. Conyers -

As someone who has admired your work in congress, from investigating voting irregularities in Ohio to fighting for single-payer health care, I was dismayed to hear about your introduction of the Digital Transition Content Security Act. As someone who is both an electrical engineer in the consumer electronics industry, and a musician in a band, I think I can speak authoritatively on this issue, and with a unique perspective.

Currently, the music, television, and movie industries are completely hysterical about the ramifications of illegal copying on their bottom lines. They have enlisted the help of electronics and computing industries to create more and more consumer-unfriendly "features" such as CDs that cannot be turned into MP3s, music downloads that can only be burned to CD a certain number of times, and many other schemes that range from irritating to dangerous (no doubt you've heard of the Sony copy protection software that completely took over users' PCs without their knowledge). Even with all of this nonsense, the one thing that savvy customers could count on is that no matter what happened with these clumsy attempts at limiting fair usage of content, there was always the "analog hole." In other words, if, for example, music bought from a download service didn't play on a user's iPod, they could burn a CD and re-"rip" it to their hard drive in a format that an iPod could play. OR, WORST CASE, they could re-record the music (that they purchased) with their microphone jack, into a format that their iPod could play. This bill (The Digital Transition Content Security Act) attempts to stop such "copying."

The ridiculous thing is that there are already widely-used copyright infringement laws which allow these companies to sue any infringers for large sums of money. The RIAA has sued all sorts of people, from children as young as ten years old, to eighty-year-old grandmothers, for sharing their content on p2p networks. Rather than having to deal with this expense and bad PR, the RIAA and others would rather spend tax dollars enforcing an unworkable technology mandate from the government.

How is this unworkable? Because the equipment that does not obey The Digital Transition Content Security Act already exists. And because it exists, and the internet exists, illegal copies of content will always be available on the internet. All this bill will do is make new equipment less desirable, and create a "flea market" economy for older, non-compliant equipment. And it will push otherwise law-abiding citizens toward the illegal filesharing communities once they find out that the content they bought won't play on their device.

The "content" industries have business models which they like (ad-supported, copy-protected, etc), and they would like to codify these models into national criminal law. This WILL stifle innovation, and in some cases, it already has. I worked for ReplayTV a few years ago, and watched the company wither away, its stock price held hostage under threat of lawsuit for a commercial-skipping feature that had been available on VCRs for twenty years. Members of the MPAA have even mused that going to the bathroom while commercials are playing shouldn't be permitted.

However, as someone who is also in an independent band ( ), I can say that, for myself, I have no problem with people sharing my music on a p2p network. In fact, I would wager that for 90% of the bands out there (the 90% who don't belong to one of the 3-5 major media companies), they don't care either. The RIAA/MPAA would have us ban entire product categories to protect their profits against what they see as lost sales.

As someone who truly believes that our healthcare system is broken, and that the best way to fix it is through a single-payer system, perhaps you will be more receptive to an alternative to this bill:

Rather than trying to impose a false sense of scarcity on a non-scarce resource, we could get back to solving the REAL problem: How do artists and creators get paid? One answer is a single-payer license fee for digital content. Everyone who uses broadband (or heck, even all taxpayers, if you think that could work) would pay a monthly fee (say $5-10/month). An entity (government or NGO - right now a company called "Big Champagne" already does this) would track peer-to-peer downloads, and divide up the pool of money proportionally. People could then feel free to make use of the wonderful potential that digital copying offers our culture.

Now I'm sure that there would be resistance to such an idea, but I'm guessing that you are starting to get a taste of how taxpayers are extremely (and uniformly) opposed to these Hollywood giveaway bills, so maybe this idea won't sound so crazy.

The other thing that we, as a country, need to resolve is the conflict between the right to fair use of content (for backup copies, criticism and academic discussion, time-shifting) and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which declares the removal or bypassing of any copy controls to be illegal. There is a major conflict between these two concepts. The Digital Transition Content Security Act would resolve these conflicts to the benefit of the copyright holders, but at the expense of the public and our shared culture.

Please withdraw this bill immediately.


Blogger Gizella said...

You are an amazing letter-writer...!

10:51 AM  

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