Digital content such as movies, music, and television programming—as well as the electronic devices used to access this content—would be required to incorporate a built-in technology to prevent unauthorized copying and distribution, according to a bill introduced into the Senate March 21.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, D-S.C., introduced the bill to help spur the development of content for newly emerging entertainment media, such as high-definition television and broadband internet.

But some legislative analysts fear the bill goes too far and would interfere with the legitimate classroom use of copyright-protected materials by educators, while others question the bill’s technical feasibility.

“It’s yet one more way of requiring content owners and device manufacturers to put copyright protection measures on their works and devices,” said Miriam Nisbett, legislative counsel for the American Library Association.

If its protection measure must be continually updated, the bill could prove costly for schools, Nisbett said: “If we are talking about schools having to keep up with and constantly upgrade [their technology], that’s a problem.”

Hollings’ bill, called the Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act (S. 2048), claims programmers are reluctant to make this kind of digital content because effective piracy solutions currently do not exist.

File sharing, downloading, and redistribution of movies, television programs, and music are rampant on the internet, content developers say. In addition, DVD players now can record movies and television programming.

Piracy was not as significant an issue for content developers until recently, because movies and music traditionally have been copied using analog technology, and this reduced the quality of the content. Reproducing content digitally doesn’t affect its quality.

The bill, which is supported by the movie and music industries, would require a standard for copyright protection technology to be created and adopted for all hardware and content. The government would enforce the use of this standard.

The bill asks the Federal Communication Commission to ensure that the new security standard will be reliable, renewable, resistant to attack, applicable to multiple technology platforms, modular, extensible, upgradeable, and not cost-prohibitive.

Individuals who remove or alter a copying-prevention device could receive fines ranging between $200 and $2,500 per incident.

The bill also states that the content-protection measure should allow individuals “to engage in legitimate use of digital content for educational or research purposes” and should take into account the fair-use doctrine. But some observers question whether this would be possible.

“The technology is not going to distinguish who has fair use of certain content,” Nisbett said. “Whether you’re a librarian or a criminal, the technology doesn’t know the difference.”

Fair use currently allows educators to show portions of copyright-protected material in the classroom without having to get permission from the copyright holder. Nisbett speculated that whatever content-protection measure arises from the bill might be set up so a DVD, for example, could be played on only one machine, or only a certain number of times, or would expire after a year.

“The technology is going to tell you how you are going to use [the content], instead of the other way around,” Nisbett said.

Education groups aren’t the bill’s only critics. In a March 14 statement about protecting digital copyrights, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., described the move to force the development of a technological solution through legislation as “wrong-headed.”

“A government-mandated technical standard may produce a one-size-fits-all technology that might not suit the purposes of all content owners and [might] end up stifling innovative new technologies and implementations,” Leahy said.

The consumer electronics industry also opposes the bill. Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, called it “misdirected legislation that would introduce new, onerous government mandates on the IT sector and consumers.”

Links:

Thomas: Legislative information on the internet

Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C.

American Library Association

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

Information Technology Association of America