U.S. copyright protection bill draws criticism

A U.S. senator on Thursday introduced a controversial bill that would force the inclusion of copyright protection technology in digital media devices ranging from PCs to cable television set-top boxes.

The Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act, introduced on Thursday by South Carolina Democrat Fritz Hollings, calls for the IT, consumer electronic, and entertainment industries to work together on digital content safeguards. If the groups can’t come to agreement on protection technology within a year, the federal government would step in and mandate specifications, according to a summary of the bill issued by Hollings’ office.

The measure is designed to help spur the adoption of broadband Internet connections and digital television, which have been stunted by the lack of digital content made available by entertainment companies that fear exposing their works to copyright violations, Hollings said in a statement issued Thursday.

“By unleashing an avalanche of digital content on broadband Internet connections as well as over the digital broadcast airwaves, we can change this dynamic and give consumers a reason to buy new consumer electronics and information technology products,” Hollings said. “To do so requires the development of a secure, protected environment to foster the widespread dissemination of digital content in these exciting new mediums.”

The IT and entertainment industries have been working together to develop technology that protects digital copyright material, according to officials who have testified at Senate hearings on the topic, pointing to their joint work to create cryptographic tools to prevent copyright violations with DVDs (digital versatile discs).

Some in the entertainment industry have complained to Congress that progress is not moving fast enough, and that the IT industry is reticent to protect digital works that traverse the Internet.

Hollings’ bill would prod these joint efforts by giving the parties involved a one-year deadline to come up with solutions to three particular issues: ensuring that content digital televisions receive from over-the-air digital broadcasts cannot be pirated; protecting high-definition content when it’s translated to an analog signal for traditional TV sets; and preventing digital content from unauthorized distribution on the Web through peer-to-peer file sharing.

In his statement supporting the bill, Hollings expressed frustration with the time it’s taken for the IT and consumer electronics industries to develop the copyright protection technology that the entertainment industry has been clamoring for. “Industry negotiations have been lagging. Both sides share some blame in this area,” he said. “But the blame games need to end. It’s time for results, not recriminations.”

Once the protection specifications are decided upon, the government would enforce compliance on all consumer devices, according to the bill’s summary.

The measure has met resistance by members of the IT industry, who believe it’s technically impossible to protect a digital work once it has been unleashed on the Web, as well as consumer advocacy groups that feel the bill violates individuals’ rights to flexible use of the copyright works they buy.

At a hearing on the topic last week, Intel Corp.’s CEO Craig Barrett told a Senate committee that some of the proposals suggested by the entertainment industry – such as equipping PCs with devices that scan all downloaded content and play back only the works that are authorized, or building a database of copyright material that each file traversing the Internet must be compared against – are not only unwieldy, but would violate users’ privacy rights.

“I don’t even know how to do that technically, (never mind) the privacy issues,” he said at the hearing.

Barrett suggested instead that copyright content be protected at the source by a watermark or other type of flag that prevents it from being copied. The industries must work together through legal means, to shut down unauthorized distribution Web sites, and through business solutions, including sites that sell authorized digital content, to prevent illegal file sharing, he added.

The new bill hopes to spur the industries to resolve these issues and to seal their resolution with legislation.

Meanwhile, consumer advocate group DigitalConsumer.org, lead by Excite@Home Inc. founder Joe Kraus, says the bill is designed to place more power in the hands of entertainment companies and deny users some basic rights. Under the fair use clause in current copyright law, consumers can make duplicates of copyright material they’ve purchased for their own personal use, such as creating compilation CDs or taping songs from discs to listen to in the car. Yet some emerging technology, such as copy-protected CDs that cannot be duplicated, trumps that fair use right.

“The (Hollings bill) will do nothing to safeguard consumers,” read a posting on DigitalConsumer.org’s Web site. “While the bill claims to protect the `fair use doctrine,’ media companies have historically either denied that personal use rights exist or defined those rights extremely narrowly.” The group is calling for the adoption of a Consumer Technology Bill of Rights that would safeguard fair use.

Perhaps anticipating such criticism, Hollings on Thursday said that his bill would preserve consumers’ fair use rights.

“I want to be clear on this point: No legislation can or should pass Congress in this area that does not seek to protect legitimate consumer copying and fair use practices,” he said in his speech.

Another group, the Information Technology Association of America, blasted the bill as attempting to halt innovation by forcing a “one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of digital piracy,” according to a statement it released Friday.

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