Bad legislation opens Web to corporate lawyers

By Alex Torralbas, Computerworld |  Business

I recently finished a very funny novel by syndicated columnist Dave Barry called Big Trouble. The action takes place in Miami, where my mother lives, so I decided to send it to her when I was done with it. She'd really get a kick out of it.

Good thing the book was on good, way-old-fashioned paper, and not digital. If this had been some kind of e-book, all kinds of obnoxious code would have prevented me from letting her read it: It would have worked only on the device on which it was originally downloaded.

How do they justify this nonsense? Because of the worst piece of legislation to affect the free flow of information: the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

This stinking hunk of law makes it illegal to do something that's been legal for longer than almost anyone reading this column has been alive. Its essence is that you can't make copies of anything, for any reason, period. No more making compilation tapes of your favorite party songs or photocopies of articles to hand out at a meeting.

MP3.com Inc., Napster Inc. and 2600 Magazine have all recently lost court battles when they were confronted by lawyers waving this piece of legislative junk at them. Little of what the media conglomerates are doing in their take-no-prisoners litigation has anything to do with copyrights or protecting themselves from pirates. It has to do with being able to dominate distribution and marketing.

The genie is out of the bottle on this one, wreaking havoc on our rights and placing absurd roadblocks in the way of progress.

The 2600 Magazine case was especially troubling. The company was barred from providing even a hyperlink to a server in New Zealand that contains source code to bypass some of the restrictions on DVDs. A hyperlink. That's like making it illegal for me to say, "They sell drugs on that street," because, to use the tortured logic from 2600 Magazine's case, merely giving this pointer is as illegal as actually selling drugs.

The Recording Industry Association of America Inc. (RIAA), the group representing the major recording labels, hid behind a sanctimonious argument that Napster would turn Madonna into a pauper if left to its own devices. The RIAA's real aim was to protect the business of selling overpriced plastic through near-monopoly distribution channels. One of the more idiotic and sad items to come out of this particular saga had the RIAA demanding that the quality of MP3 recordings be intentionally degraded to way below CD quality to force people to want the real thing.

Between corporate lawyers torturing the intent of legislation and law and the unmitigated greed of media companies, the future of "e" anything that currently exists on paper or plastic is being smothered in its cradle.

But, sadly, the media conglomerates now own the product and much of the hardware and software, so expect more stupidity to make it to court.

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