April 21, 2005

Prof Speaks About Copyright Law

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Against the idyllic backdrop of Cornell’s rolling hills and spring air, a modern war is erupting — and students are emerging as some of the key players.

Prof. Tarleton Gillespie, communication, spoke to students and faculty yesterday afternoon at Hollister Hall about recent copyright battles and the implications current copyright trends hold for end users, especially students.

His lecture, “Why You’re in the Trenches of the Copyright Wars,” surveyed the history of copyright law, the impact of the Internet on the regulatory landscape and the use of digital rights management.

There is “a battle, a debate over how digital culture is going to work,” being waged in court, the press, corporate boardrooms and even dorm rooms, Gillespie said.

Because college students are frequent consumers and users of music, movies and peer-to-peer filing sharing, they are heavily invested in this battle, said Gillespie.

He pointed to a recent lawsuit filed by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) against 405 students at 18 different colleges sharing copyrighted files across Internet 2, a super-fast computer network.

Many students, especially engineers and science majors, will also become future rulemakers who design how technology regulates digital sharing.

“Your next job may be with the maker of technology,” Gillespie said. “That changes the way you’re implicated.”

According to him, the Internet has changed the landscape of copyright law, which was originally intended to protect print materials and was, until the last decade, something only relevant to businesses.

American copyright regulations have their roots in the British 1710 Statute of Anne, which protected the interests of authors and printers and also attempted to curb treason and blasphemy by writers out of line with the wishes of the government and church.

The original copyright law operated on a “Lockian notion of property,” Gillespie said.

Just as philosopher John Locke said that people can own land by virtue of tilling it, plowing it and investing work into it, copyright regulations gave authors exclusive rights to a particular work if they invest the resources to create it in the first place.

In America, however, copyright law is premised on a principle of utilitarianism, with the goal to “promote the progress of science and useful arts” as stated in the Constitution. Although the law gives authors limited monopolies on their work, the rights of creators are secondary to the interest of public welfare.

Yet according to Gillespie, the legal regulations that ensured copyright protection in the past are no longer adequate.

“Copyright was principled on a moment when they were talking about print,” he said. “Technology [has] stirred old copyright questions.”

For example, the RIAA is discovering that they cannot find “a clean solution with legal methods” to the problem of music piracy, he said. Because of the Internet’s capabilities, users can now duplicate copies of songs and distribute those copies easily and cheaply.

The industry is afraid that soon, people will “start thinking music is free,” said Gillespie.

Increasingly, copyright owners are turning to technology rather than legislation as a means of regulation. At the forefront of this new regulation is Digital Rights Management (DRM), a set of laws built into the technology of music, movies, software and their players that allow certain behaviors by consumers while prohibiting other kinds.

Gillespie cited several examples of software using DRM, including Itunes, e-books, and the Napster 2 application many on campus use.

For example, students using Napster 2 can listen to music, but they cannot copy files, burn them to a CD or distribute them to friends.

The movie industry also uses DRM to prevent user copying by encrypting data stored on DVDs.

When consumers buy DVD’s, “the film is held for ransom and locked until the person says, ‘I’ll play it under your rules,”‘ Gillespie said.

Although programs to decrypt DVDs have surfaced, the industry intended its digital “locks” to be broken only by DVD player manufacturers who pay for the key and agree to comply with the industry’s demands. Thus, these players do not have record buttons like VCR’s.

This new method of copyright regulation carries some troubling implications, said Gillespie.

“The rules are being privately designed,” he said. Laws usually drawn up in public forums and exposed to scrutiny are now crafted in the offices of record labels and software developers.

When users buy movies, CDs or software packages, they no longer have rights to its full use. Under DRM, consumers may pay separately for the length or times of use of a product -in other words, be charged different prices depending on their use of the product, he said.

He added, “All activities that weren’t commodified [before] are.”

According to him, DRM also does not allow for fair use, a exception built into the original copyright laws authorizing journalists, critics and educators to use segments of others’ copyrighted materials in their own works. Technology features that do not allow software duplication is indiscriminate to user intent.

More troubling to Gillespie is that someone who use a product with DRM “cannot investigate it.” The designers are “welding the hood shut,” he said.

Users cannot tinker with the product or gleam new insights from it; they can only interact with the product in ways envisioned by DRM designers.

“DRM wants consumers, not users,” Gillespie said.

He continued that the conflict between recording industries and consumers is not simply a matter of technology or copyright laws.

“These rules apply to all movement of culture. The technological system … sets terms for what the net is. [It] changes who gets to make culture,” he said.

“I think we’re all screwed,” Ben Walther ’06 said about the future of consumers after the lecture yesterday. “The businesses in question are doing a very excellent job of limiting our use of media.”

He continued, “These trade associations are monopolies and do not have to compete to win consumers. We have no choice in the matter.”

The lecture was sponsored by the Undergraduate Society for Intellectual Property (USIP) and the Information Science Seminar Series.

USIP President Ilya Sukhar ’07 said the lecture was valuable because “engineers are really going to be the ones making the decisions, almost more so than the managers.”

An engineer himself, Sukhar said one of the lecture’s purposes was to expose engineers and science majors to some of the social issues surrounding their future work.

Archived article by Xiaowei Cathy Tang
Sun Senior Editor