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January 23, 2001

Notes from today’s webcrawl: Zeldman leads me to Webtype, which links to Matt McIrvin’s Colophon, wherein he discusses the CSS techniques he uses and tradeoffs he makes.

In a curious mood, I stick around and find the obscure poetry of E.E. “Doc” Cummings, a descent Into the Sepia Zone, and an explanation of how gravity works. (Two are humorous, one is not. I leave determining which is which as an exercise for the reader.) #

Less humorous is an e-mail essay posted by Doc Searls about the pernicious effects of copy protection. (Update: The author has posted a cleaned-up version.) Let me state right at the start that I support the concept of copyright. I fully believe that authors and creators should have some control over their work. But I’m not entirely convinced that corporations should be granted the same rights, and I absolutely oppose the idea that copyrights are forever.

Unfortunately, the ability to make decisions one way or another may soon vanish. The consumer electronics industry increasingly works with the entertainment industry to make it difficult for people to copy or display works without paying for them. The problem is that these systems create a double standard. Only corporations can create copy-protected works. If you record something—your wedding perhaps—on a digital recorder, you can’t get the digital recording back, only an analog interpretation. Portable MP3 players can play back CD-quality sound but can’t record better than monaural phone-quality sound. (Read the essay for more examples. It's quite alarming.)

Is this what we want? Our rights are being taken away from us. The public domain is being chiseled away, simply because the newer, better technologies assume you don’t have any rights beyond viewing—and even that isn’t certain. Remember DivX, the DVD-like system where you had to pay every time you wanted to watch something? And it’s not just viewers and listeners who are affected. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act may make it illegal to publish the methods used to break SDMI. That’s right, basic research is threatened. Our laws are protecting copyright holders by preventing anyone from talking about holes in copy protection schemes.

What will we lose because of this? Just to make one, small example, let's look at a hobby of mine: Japanese animation, or anime. In recent years, this has become an established industry, with players like Pioneer and Bandai selling English-dubbed or subtitled versions of anime TV shows and movies. They did this because there was a fan base, and the fan base developed largely through the underground efforts of fans who imported and distributed video tapes. Some were purely legal efforts, like fan groups who bought a single tape and passed it around along with a translation. Others distributed copies, or even created fan-subtitled versions. Both are illegal, but as long as things stayed small-scale, people figured no harm was being done. Large distributors who charged money were called pirates and avoided by the veteran fans.

I’ll admit that I’ve watched fansubs. I’ve even chipped in to pay for some, although I didn't keep copies. (It was for Escaflowne, which I later bought when it came out legally.) Over the years, I’ve put several hundred dollars into legal anime products and merchandise (whether that sounds like a lot or very little depends on how into the scene you are). That’s money that would have been spent on something else if it hadn't been for those most-likely-illegal tapes sparking my interest.

Would it be possible for something like anime fandom to spring up in the future? Not if the industry has any say. Consumer DVD recorders will not copy copyrighted disks, so fansubs are out, but it gets worse. The DVD system divides the world into regions, and a player from one region won’t play disks from outside that region. That means imports are out. If I bought a Japanese DVD, I would not be able to play it on my DVD player. I would be unable to view a disk that I have purchased the right to play. This is progress?

I don’t think we're doomed. The dance between copy protection and copy protection breakers is a long one, and hardly anyone bothers with it in the software world anymore. (Except Microsoft, which is adding some half-hearted protection to Windows.) Sure, Intel may be talking about encrypting the very contents of your hard drive and refusing to show you anything it determines you don’t have the right to see, but there will be workarounds or alternate systems.

If I spend a lot of time complaining about the DMCA and the SDMI (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8), it’s because it alarms me to see these decisions get made without considering the consequences. In criminal law we want to reduce the number of people who are guilty of crimes but go free, but it is at least as important—I would say more important—that people who are innocent of crimes do not get convicted. It is the same with copyright. While we want to prevent people from pirating video or music, we also have to protect the rights of small-time creators who simply want to record their own work. (And don’t say, “Of course that would be allowed,” without reading that essay first.)

My point, which I’m pretty sure is buried somewhere in that disorganized ramble, is that these schemes to prevent illegal activities also prevent legal activities that the entertainment industry doesn’t like. That is when things have gone too far. #


Another attempt to restrict internet use in the name of protecting children, a mobile phone made out of paper (both via Swaine), a pretty funny swipe at Designated President Bush (via Invisible City), and a new issue of JOHO replete with the usual high-quality insights ’n’ stuff. #