Ahead of the Academy Awards this weekend, Chris Dodd, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, would like to assure you that "Hollywood is pro-technology and pro-Internet." But what does that mean? The comments filed at the Copyright Office this month by MPAA and RIAA, together with the Business Software Alliance, the Entertainment Software Association, and other copyright owners' groups, paint a clear picture of these groups' vision for the future of the Internet and digital technologies.
EFF is asking the Copyright Office for legal exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to allow jailbreaking (or "rooting") of smartphones, tablets, and game consoles, so that people can run their software of choice on the devices they own. EFF is also asking for exemptions that will allow noncommercial video remixers to use video clips from DVDs and online video services. Other organizations are asking for exemptions for various forms of digital video, accessibility for the disabled, and other important projects. Under the DMCA, exemptions expire every three years, and have to be justified all over again. Many of you sent comments and signed petitions in support of EFF's exemption requests, and the Copyright Office received almost 700 comments.
MPAA and friends don't approve of a single one of the exemption requests. "The risk associated with encouraging people to circumvent and test the limits of fair use is too high," they say, and the makers of computing devices should be able to stop "unintended uses" of their products. In fact, say the entertainment lobbies, giving you the ability to modify your own devices for your own use will "wreak havoc" on "markets for consumer access to works."
Let's unpack this. Almost everything we do on the Internet or with digital media makes a copy—even viewing a webpage. In many cases, the fair use rule of copyright law is what keeps these everyday activities from being copyright violations. But proving definitively that a use is fair often requires a courageous artist or entrepreneur to go to court and risk massive penalties for the chance of having a judge say that what they're doing is legal. According to the entertainment lobbies, the U.S. government should not encourage people to do this.
Ironically, most of the devices that let us create and experience movies, music, software, and so on "test the limits of fair use"—and many have wound up in court. If this were discouraged, we may never have had the VCR, the MP3 player, the digital video recorder, image-searching websites, or social networks—at least not without asking the entertainment industries' permission first.
And speaking of permission, MPAA regrets that "the Copyright Office missed an opportunity to endorse" the custom of "asking permission" before innovating.
So what should the Copyright Office be doing? MPAA et al. humbly suggest that the Office should be protecting the "ongoing viability of business models" that create "predictability with respect to how works will be accessed and how copyrighted software and technologies used to facilitate such access will be used and manipulated." You won't find that in any law, although it sounds a lot like the goals of the now-defunct SOPA and PIPA bills. Again, let's look behind the euphemisms: the entertainment lobbies want the U.S. government to protect their members' bottom lines by regulating how digital technologies can be used. Only uses that receive Hollywood's permission, and are "predictable," should pass muster.
Apparently this is what Mr. Dodd means when he says "Hollywood is pro-technology and pro-Internet": technology that blocks "unintended uses" and an Internet subject to Hollywood's veto power. SOPA and PIPA may be dead, but the agenda behind them seems alive and well.