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Information Lockdown

In the early days of the PC software industry, elaborate anticopying systems blocked users from duplicating programs for use by friends or colleagues. By the 1990s, consumer resistance had restricted copy protection to niche products such as computer-assisted-design programs. But now, companies are reimposing such limits. Here again, technology producers are displaying a taste for incapacitation.

Yes, copyright owners have tried using accountability-they took Napster to court and brought the file-sharing service down with a lawsuit. But that was a victory in one battle of what has become a widening war; a new file-sharing network seems to rise from the ashes of each defeated one. Individual songs and entire movies are now routinely available on the Web weeks before their official release. While the music industry is beginning to introduce its own download sites online and, soon, in retail stores, it is also alarmed by peer-to-peer exchange among friends. Soon, even entry level personal computers will have the capability to record CDs and DVDs, and enough disk space for hours of music and video. The consumer, in other words, is becoming a low-cost rival manufacturer and, through Internet file sharing, an essentially zero-cost rival distributor. The strategy of accountability, it seems, is losing the war.

Companies have already begun to limit movements of data. Sony, a leading audio and video company and copyright owner, may be offering a preview of controls to come. Some of its computers already use proprietary software to encrypt digital music, limiting the number of times a song can be downloaded (“checked out,” in Sony’s parlance) to an external device. After three downloads, a song must be “checked in” to the original device before it can be checked out again. While the aim is protection of copyrighted material, the program makes it difficult to duplicate any CD at all-including one that contains music created and recorded by the owner.

Such schemes will of course have little effect against the greatest economic threats to the copyright holders: the pirate factories of eastern Europe and Asia. These illicit operations can pay technical experts to defeat protection, or bribe insiders for unprotected copies of source material. Whether intentionally or not, therefore, Sony is targeting the controls at the less serious losses from sharing among friends.

Why should a legitimate owner of a CD or DVD object to such copy protection? These schemes do, after all, permit backups and second copies for use in other machines, such as portable or automobile CD players. But the controls can also degrade the quality of the product. Even some electrical engineers who believe that sophisticated copy protection is undetectable to most listeners acknowledge that because music and videos already make use of data compression algorithms that take advantage of the limits of human senses, a few people with especially discerning ears may indeed be able to tell the difference. Moreover, copy control often works by weakening the error correction schemes in the stored data-an alteration that may wash out subtleties of performance or make discs less scratch resistant.

Last October, Audio Revolution magazine reported that DVD players constructed without the normally mandated series of internal conversions between digital and analog formats-circuits included by industry agreement purely to foil piracy-produce “stunning” images compared to those from conventional players. The British organization Campaign for Digital Rights has denounced copy protection as an unacceptably blunt weapon against piracy: determined outlaws can still find computers that will allow the CDs to be ripped for MP3s, while honest consumers receive what many audio and video enthusiasts consider musically compromised products.

Despite the complaints, past experience has shown that what technology can control, the law will control-or at least try to. That’s exactly what has happened here, as constraints on data copying draw strength and legitimacy from the force of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. This legislation provides harsh penalties not only for piracy but also for publicizing ways to circumvent security. So far, however, the law appears not to have slowed the diffusion of control-evading techniques: the anarchical impulse of technology users is not easily suppressed.

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