Digital witch hunt goes on

With zine artists redistributing copyrighted work and journalists cannibalizing other news sources, the moral and legal boundaries surrounding intellectual property are continually being stretched. It’s a slippery issue that pits consumers and their advocates against big business interests.

RIAA battles 321 Studios, Inc.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has made repeated efforts to put a halt to the online sharing of MP3 files, and now film studios have hired lawyers to sue 321 Studios, Inc. (manufacturer of DVD copying software) for providing consumers with the means to reproduce digital video discs. In reality, those who deal in copied materials will have their way, despite the efforts of the wealthy studios involved.

Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), told the Associated Press in November, “If you buy a DVD, you have a copy. If you want a backup, you buy another one.”

This statement seems to indicate that the MPAA has no interest in giving customers what they want, or even the ability to protect products that they have already bought. The MPAA’s sole aim seems to be to make more money for moviemakers. Why continue to reward them for this cold-shoulder attitude by supporting their business fiscally? The big boys shouldn’t be encouraged to tell consumers what they can or can’t do with the things they have already paid for (within reason: selling copies of copyrighted materials is understandably offensive to the rightful beneficiaries). The movie studios should thank God (or whatever they worship; who knows what LA religion is based on?) that people are buying their overpriced DVDs at all.

Both sides claim that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998 is in their corner. The DMCA prohibits the sale of devices that will both decrypt and copy DVDs and their constituent files. A journalist from The Register voiced the opinion that the DMCA contradicts U.S. “fair rights” laws by prohibiting the sale of such devices. 321 Studios, Inc. will appeal the ruling this week, and their products may remain available in their current form past this Friday. But if they lose the appeal, however, they will have to remove the “ripper” (decrypter) from their product.

One member of an online chat group proposed a device that could play decrypted .VOB files but not copy them. (VOBs are the information on DVDs, i.e. the menus, the chapters and the actual motion picture.) This could help avoid legal trouble by offering the consumer access to a copy of their DVD without allowing them to reproduce it, thereby precluding any copying for profit while providing consumers with a backup copy for their home.

So now the software has to be chopped up: under the DMCA, the Content Scramble System (CSS) cannot be circumvented by the same software, which duplicates the files in question. So, according to the courts, the software can be copied using 321 Studios, Inc. products, and the CSS can be cracked using software easily available elsewhere on the Internet.

Beyond DVDs

This issue has reared its head in other media, too. DJ Danger Mouse mixed The Beatles White Album and Jay-Z’s Black Album together to make his own Grey Album. It proved a dangerous move for the Mouse – The Beatles’ people sued. Is every other remixer now liable to be sued?

DJ Shadow is a revered remix artist, and his music contains far too many snippets of copyrighted recordings to name and credit them all. But the snippets give themselves over fully enough to the personality of DJ Shadow’s music that they are sometimes impossible to recognize, and therefore hard to stand up for in court.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) asked EMI, the Beatles’ label, to “leave the remixers alone.” The EFF website,, states their mission: “If America’s founding fathers had anticipated the digital frontier, there would be a clause in the Constitution protecting your rights online as well. Instead, a modern group of freedom fighters was necessary to extend the original vision into the digital world. That’s where the Electronic Frontier Foundation comes in.”

What about the concern that folks will be prevented from sharing their own material online because file servers are shut down by record companies in an attempt to stop the trafficking of copyrighted materials? Either the users of these programs have to pay heed to copyright law by refraining from sharing copyright-protected information, or the plaintiff artist or company must acknowledge the free promotion of their product that filesharing provides for them.

Some consumers have already displayed this admixture of the desire to download and the desire to act as moral consumers. Luke Walsh, a social science major at PSU, said, “I agree with the record companies on this one. I think that stealing music is bad. I admit I download from there, but you’ve got to sympathize with the artist on this one. That’s how they make their living.”

Perhaps a rational compromise will yet be met. Until then, DVD copiers will have to look somewhere other than 321 Studios software to get their duplication fix.