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Napster Was Only the Beginning

By Jim Bray

Napster may be on its deathbed, but it won’t put to rest the issue of intellectual property versus “freedom.”

There’s also a fight on over the potential wholesale pirating of DVD movies, a trick made possible by a smart kid who was apparently trying to build his own better mousetrap.

Anyone who’s watched a DVD knows how great their quality can be, but anyone who’s tried to record one onto a VCR has found it to be a mostly frustrating experience. Not only do many contain antipiracy software, but the quality lost going from the digital disc to analog tape is enough to bring tears to the eyes of the most blatant buccaneer.

Imagine the market, then – both for profit and for personal use – if you could make perfect copies of your favorite flicks.

Now, DVD recorders are slowly becoming available, but they’re pretty expensive right now and whether or not they’ll bypass the copy protection is a question for another column. In the meantime, that aforementioned teenager has come up with a utility that can allow Digital Blackbeards to copy a DVD onto their hard drives, and from there do whatever they want with it.

The utility was apparently designed to let Linux users play back DVD’s on their computers, but it can also supposedly get around the copy protection encoded onto the DVD discs, though I haven’t tried it and therefore can’t comment on whether or not it really works.

Still, you can imagine the absolute furor this set off in Hollywood as visions of purloined sugarplums danced through the moviemakers’ heads. They overreacted predictably, by not only trying to get the utility banned but by applying for a restraining order to prevent the publication of any Web site links information about the utility or, according to a post on the tech-related site Slashdot, they’re trying to “stifle anyone who publishes or links to information about (it).”

That seems to me like a violation of freedom of speech, but what do you expect from inclusive forces of tolerance like Hollywood producers and their lawyers? I must assume that, since I’m writing about the subject, this column could bring me to the attention of the authorities.

Good thing I still have that old bomb shelter in the back yard, so I can hide out until the police have left…

The “freedom of speech” community is gaining the support of such groups as the ACLU, which encouraged the courts to “interpret copyright laws to accommodate free speech concerns.”

The ACLU argues that “the ‘fair use’ doctrine has traditionally limited copyright liability by protecting the use of copyrighted works in criticism, parody, comment, news reporting, teaching and scholarship.”

The argument makes a certain amount of sense, I must admit, as long it isn’t used as an excuse for blatant and widespread piracy.

Whichever way the legal situation works out, a Napster-like movie-trading site is definitely possible, though right now it isn’t very practical thanks to the bandwidth required to download such large files. It won’t be long, however, before the bandwidth question is answered.

Ironically enough, Hollywood is helping move the bandwidth ahead. Some producers now transmit portions of their movies-in-progress to remote locations for consultation or editing purposes, and the first digital movie theatres (which receive their “films” via satellite transmission) have already sprung up. Can the Internet be far behind in becoming a high speed pipeline capable of the full scale distribution of high quality video?

Therein lies a lot of Hollywood’s concern, I’m sure.

As for me, a creator of what could be called intellectual property (though I’d hesitate to think of it as being particularly intellectual), I must come down on the side of the copyright holders lest I be accused of being a hypocrite of gargantuan proportions.

It’s one thing to give away your work, and another to have it taken. These artists work hard to make it and regardless of how rich they’ve become (isn’t that what hard work and ingenuity are supposed to bring?) they’re entitled to the spoils of their effort.

If some artists want to encourage the free distribution of their material, that’s fine – but it needs to be their decision not yours and mine. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

So I hope Napster and its potential successors go away.

Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.


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January 31, 2006