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'Play' becomes 'pay'

Mike Snider ( -- After getting hooked on the cult television show Mystery Science Theater 3000 in early 1997, Jessica Evans wanted to see earlier episodes.

On the Internet, she found people who would trade videotapes of the since-canceled program for tapes of other shows.

Her passion grew. Now, the 23-year-old Brooksville, Fla., junior college student owns three VCRs and about 400 VHS tapes of shows, from The A-Team to The X-Files.

She makes no money from her collection. But her hobby, and those of countless other music, movie and TV fans, soon may become impossible.

While record labels and movie studios are fighting in court to prevent widespread sharing of content, they're also pushing for technologies that could digitally "wrap up" music, movies and TV programs to limit copying or trading.

These cyberspace copyright battles are likely to radically affect what can be done in one's own home, with movies, music (and soon, books) already purchased and paid for.

In the future, what you own might not be a disc or a tape, but rather, the limited right to listen or watch.

"If the content industry has its way, the 'play' button will become the 'pay' button," said Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association, a manufacturers trade group.

The result, he said: "Widening the digital divide and stalling the revolution in instant, global access to education, information and entertainment."

Movie studios and other content creators say new protections are needed so that films, music and other content can be delivered electronically "and conveyed safely in a secure environment, pretty much invulnerable to 'movie snatchers' whose aim it is to have free what others pay for," said Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America.

There are a number of possible futures, and "total lockdown" might be a radical-case scenario.

But consumer advocates are increasingly voicing concerns about the shifting balance between the rights of copyright holders and consumers. Technology exists or soon will exist to allow studios and labels to track every copy and every viewing.

"This could well lead to a world where all published media are locked," said Brad Templeton of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online free speech organization.

The EFF has fought against the advance of anti-copy technology in PCs, high-definition TV and DVD movie discs.

Ironically, Napster and similar online file-sharing programs, once heralded as the ultimate liberating technology, instead may become the final nail in the coffin of the vague, constantly shifting set of rights known as "fair use."

Today, millions videotape TV programs and record music on compact discs, thanks in part to a centuries-old principle of "fair use."

That doctrine has been reinforced in court cases and laws to allow consumers, scholars, teachers, librarians, journalists and others to excerpt, copy and reproduce part -- or, in some cases, all -- of a copyrighted work for the purpose of teaching, criticism and reporting.

In recent years:

* The Supreme Court ruled in 1984 that consumers have the right to "time shift" TV programs on VCRs to view later.

* Making cassette tapes or copies of CDs for personal use has been affirmed by court rulings, while a 1992 law allowed consumers to make limited digital copies of music, allowing for royalties to be included in the price of blank tapes and discs.

* In 1999, a court ruled that portable digital music players could be sold and gave owners the right to move their music from PCs to the devices.

Fair use is intentionally vague, because it balances the rights of copyright holders with those of the public and must reflect changing technology.

For example, parents often make copies of animated tapes so children can pop them in the VCR themselves without worry. Music fans make mix tapes or discs of their collection to play in a Walkman or car.

Along the way, innovations such as the VCR and the Walkman have nurtured huge, profitable markets for hardware makers and Hollywood alike. And they've fed generations of "collectors," just the kinds of devoted followers who fill the entertainment industry's coffers.

But as the world goes digital and moves to the Internet, home copies will be turned into digital computer files that cut into the revenue of the musicians, directors and producers of these programs.

What the entertainment industry once tolerated as penny-ante pickpocketing now is envisioned as theft on a massive global scale.

A shift in balance toward the entertainment industry is exemplified, consumer advocates say, in 1998's Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Movie studios, record labels and other copyright holders lobbied for the DMCA's passage to protect U.S. movies and music from piracy.

DMCA provisions that make it illegal to circumvent technological protections allow the entertainment industry to control the specifics of playback devices.

"You can't buy a DVD player that isn't licensed by the movie industry," Templeton said. "The record industry is trying to make it so you can't buy a music player that isn't licensed by them. And now the studios want you to not be able to buy a TV set not licensed by them."

Such control runs counter to the idealistic notion of the free flow of information that has driven much of the digital revolution.

What it comes down to, said EFF attorney Robin Gross, is that music and movie industries are "using the Napster situation as another reason to look at various ways technology can be used to reduce commonly held fair uses of consumers with audio and video."

Even before the rise of Napster, the record labels and Hollywood had been backing the creation of new equipment and distribution systems that "lock" music and movies into copy-protected form.

With various degrees of cooperation from major makers of computer hardware and home entertainment products, content creators are quietly starting to weave electronic "keys" into their programs. These keys can be switched on and off at the creator's will to allow or deny any and all copying.

Technology companies are redesigning software and hardware to ensure these "digital rights management" keys are protected and recognized. Engineers and hackers who attempt to crack the systems can be sued or indicted.

It's too late for them to do anything about today's hardware, such as VCRs and CD recorders. But as new products emerge and older ones become extinct, options may become increasingly limited:

* Television. Today, most TV programming except some pay-per-view and special events can be recorded. But future digital signals -- via satellite, cable or broadcast -- could be encrypted so that a recording eventually will erase itself or, in the most extreme cases, not record at all.

Encryption of pay-per-view events could protect future fees for rebroadcasts and possible for-sale DVD versions.

* Music. Today, songs can be recorded and moved among tapes, CDs, memory cards and hard disks.

But future PC hard drives and new "secure" memory cards, used by such gadgets as portable MP3 players and digital cameras, are being designed to recognize authorized files and to refuse to play or transfer unauthorized ones.

Downloaded music might not be able to be "burned" onto a CD or be unplayable when posted on the Net.

* Other data. A downloaded electronic book might be "locked" into a specific PC, personal digital assistant or handheld device.

Similarly, backup copies of computer programs might not be allowed. Instead, software firms would send online updates.

(c) 2001

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