Today, friends can exchange clips of music they like, or pass around videotapes of “The Sopranos.” A teacher can download a picture of Mickey Mouse off the Internet to use in a class on cartooning. A teenager playing with their CD collection can “burn” a CD compilation of their favorite songs to play at a party. A parent who spots their child on a local TV sports broadcast can make a digital recording of that clip, attach it to an e-mail message, and send it to the proud grandparents across America. But soon these wondrous applications of new technology may all be illegal.
According to consumer advocates like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, such commonplace uses of computer technology—known as “fair use” because they are not done for commercial purposes—would be effectively banned under the Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act, sponsored by Senator Ernest Hollings (D-NC), chair of the Senate Commerce Committee.
Indeed, if lobbyists for Disney, News Corp., AOL TimeWarner, and the rest of Hollywood get their way, soon you won’t be allowed to buy, sell, create or distribute any “digital media device”—from MP3 players to cell phones, fax machines, digital cameras and personal computers—unless it includes government-mandated hardware and software that would prevent the unauthorized display or reproduction of copyrighted works. New digital televisions would all be hardwired to recognize programs marked by a “broadcast flag,” which would insure that they could not be copied. New PCs would have controls built into their hard-drives to allow files to be labeled as “unmovable” so they couldn’t be backed up or moved to another machine.
Complimentary legislation drafted by Reps. Howard Coble (R-NC) and Howard Berman (D-CA) would change the copyright code to make most distribution of copies obtained by "fair use" illegal unless the owner has the written permission of the copyright holder. Berman has also authored a separate bill that would give copyright owners the extraordinary power to hack the PC of anyone they suspect of sharing their material without permission, without legal liability for damage they may inflict on innocent parties.
To top things off, at the urging of Senator Hollings, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-LA) and ranking member John Dingell (D-MI), the Federal Communications Commission voted this August to mandate the use of “broadcast flags” on digital TV broadcasts, and to require TV manufacturers to have digital tuners on all sets by 2007—regardless of the price increase this may impose on consumers. Legislation currently being drafted by Tauzin and Dingell goes even further—requiring TV stations to stop broadcasting their current analog signals by the end of 2006, which would spell the end of TV reception for anyone without cable or digital service.
As a group, Hollings, Coble, Berman, Tauzin and Dingell are so cozy with Hollywood they ought to have their own sit-com.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Hollings has received more than $308,000 from the entertainment industry in the last 6 years, including almost $45,000 from AOL Time Warner, over $30,000 from News Corp., and more than $24,000 from Disney. Over his lifetime in Congress, he’s raked in more than $600,000 from the movie, music and TV industries, the sixth highest among all Senators. Collectively, Berman, Dingell, Tauzin and Coble have raked in an astounding $1.6 million from the industry and rank, respectively, at numbers 1, 3, 9 and 19 lifetime among all House members in terms of the largesse they’ve received.
The entertainment lobby says all of this legislation is needed to prevent people from stealing its property. “It's the technological equivalent of requiring that crowbars be made of foam-rubber on the grounds that metal ones may be used in the commission of burglaries,” responds the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Interestingly, the movie industry made similar arguments against an earlier technology, in 1976, when Hollywood studios sued, unsuccessfully, to ban the use of the Betamax VCR. Jack Valenti, the highest-paid lobbyist in Washington, said then that the VCR would decimate the movie business the way Jack the Ripper rampaged through 19th century London. But ultimately the industry discovered that it could make lucrative profits from the sale and rental of videos.
While the $300 billion high-tech sector outweighs the $50 billion entertainment business in economic terms, the TV/movies/music lobby has a much larger investment in Washington, giving $52.5 million to members of Congress since 1989, compared to $30.1 million from high-tech, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And even though computer companies have stepped up their giving in recent years, Hollywood is still out-pacing Silicon Valley in the current election cycle: $5.3 million to $4.3 million.
Some high-tech advocates of a more open information system have started a “GeekPAC” to combat these forces. Better idea—support a system re-boot and help create a Clean Money/Clean Elections option for candidates to run with full public financing, so that such policy decisions can be made without regard for who has the biggest wallet.