The fact that an MP3 player has jump-started my music consumption is lost on the music industry. The iPod scares them. So do CD burners and Wi-Fi and broadband Internet access. They're pushing hard for a bill that would have a chilling effect on technological innovation, even making future generations of the iPod illegal. The Inducing Infringements of Copyrights Act (S. 2560, aka the Induce Act) is moving all too quickly through the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it's scheduled for markup this Thursday. The act would hold a company liable if it intentionally "induces" a person to infringe copyright.
The possible broad interpretation of that language is frightening to technology companies who believe the recording industry would assault them with lawsuits. Among the law's opponents are Intel, Google, Yahoo, EarthLink and Verizon, along with public interest and consumer groups such as Public Knowledge and the Future of Music Coalition.
Yes, that's right: Assault weapons are now back on the market, but wireless networking is dangerous because we might use it to "steal" digital copies of music.
Of course, there is a good argument that in the current situation, musicians aren't being compensated for their work, while high-speed Internet service providers and the makers of blank CDs are raking it in. But many artists are finding a way to make P2P work for them, by releasing a few songs on the networks to get their music out there, and selling albums on their own Web sites. Some artists even encourage fans to distribute their tunes widely. (The documentary Outfoxed was recently released, along with whole source interviews, onto P2P by the filmmakers.) The Recording Industry Association of America has, nevertheless, seen fit to speak for all musicians.
What's really at stake is control. The music industry doesn't really want to stop technology from developing--they're studying the file-swapping trends of the very fans they sue--they just want to control it. The Induce Act would give them veto power over any digital device or software that would weaken their power as gatekeepers. That veto power would have a chilling effect on innovation. What company wants to develop products that make them liable for billions of dollars?
An earlier version of the legislation went even further to please the RIAA, with language that held technology companies liable for manufacturing products that encourage people to infringe copyright. Hearings in July brought harsh criticism of that language, as you can imagine, so the Senate Judiciary Committee kicked it over to the U.S. Copyright Office (who brought us the brilliantly conceived Web casting guidelines two years ago). The new language carved a safe space for personal MP3 players like the iPod, going after technologies that distribute music instead, such as wireless Internet. But the next generation of iPods, which would likely be wireless, could be outlawed by the Induce Act because they would arguably distribute music.
It remains an extraordinarily stupid and short-sighted piece of legislation.
If you're old enough to remember what Betamax was, then you'll remember that Hollywood sued to keep the home video cassette recorders off the market. The Supreme Court decision in Sony vs. Universal said VCRs have legitimate uses and thus the technology should be legal, even if some people do use them to make illegal copies. So even though Betamax players died out long ago, the movie industry's failure to wipe out VCRs was an enormous milestone in technology, a failure that meant huge profits for the very industry that tried to squash it.
Can you imagine what would have happened to the movie industry if it had won its case?
The Betamax ruling protects technological innovation from reactionary copyright law. But the Induce Act basically nullifies it by creating a new crime--inducement. Technology and consumer groups that oppose the Induce Act want the Betamax ruling to be codified into law instead. They're calling for public hearings on the legislation. Downhill Battle, an activist group that promotes the free use of technology by musicians and fans, launched a call-in campaign to Congress earlier this month. Check out their site, www.savebetamax.org, for more information.
"You have one group of companies battling another group of companies," says Nicholas Reville, co-founder of Downhill Battle, "and that's how the law is getting made. There's hardly a moment taken to say, What's good for the public? What's good for musicians? Even when you have a lot of companies on the right side in this issue, ISPs like Verizon, it's still kind of a shame that that's what it takes to take on this bill. It's just a question of which corporations can exert more power in Congress. It's kind of sad. I think in this case it's going to work out well. The electronics manufacturers are going to put up fierce resistance. But we're trying to bring the public voice in."
Another thing that's troubling about this legislation is the roster of Senators backing it: The very liberal Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont co-authored the bill with Sen. Orrin Hatch. Its cosponsors include Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, and Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota. "This is one of those issues that's not really a Left or a Right issue," Reville explains. "It's more about whether senators are going to let Hollywood push them into doing something that's not in the public interest. In some ways, the Democrats are more traditionally aligned with the entertainment industry in California."
So we can't count on the usual voices of reason to stand up for what's right in this case. We're going to have to do it ourselves. Get on the phone! A full list of committee members is available at Thomas.loc.gov.
Talk about the future
As the Indy Music Awards festival cranks up this Saturday, I will host a panel discussion about the future of music as it relates to Triangle artists. Check out the lineup of panelists:
I'm really excited to get these people in a room together. The panel is inspired by the Future of Music Coalition's conference this spring in Washington, D.C. Our panel will be held at the Century Center in Carrboro (across from Weaver Street Market) from 2 to 4 p.m., Sat., Oct. 2. It's free! Please come.