The Hittman Chronicle

In dis corner, Hollywood and Congress.  In dat corner, all da rest of the country

Dave Hitt

Senator Fritz Hollings, a wholly owned subsidiary of the entertainment industry, is deeply concerned that the record and movie companies are not making enough money. He intends to rectify the situation by destroying the computer industry. And just for good measure, the electronics industry, the shareware industry, and all open source software projects as well.

The RIAA (the recording industry) and the MPAA (the movie industry), have paid Holling nearly $300,000. His tireless pandering to them has earned him the nickname "The Senator from Disney." He has introduced legislation that will force every piece of hardware and software capable of recording or playing any content to contain copy protection that would prevent unauthorized use of anything and everything. The bill provides penalties of up to five years in prison and $500,000 for circumventing the copy protection. That's right, a half million bucks.

The bill, now called Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act (CBDTPA), demands that industry create a copy protection scheme within a year of it's passage. If they don't, the government will do it for them. (Imagine what kind of a nightmare they will come up with!) Every computer, VCR, DVR, CD player, digital camera (video and still), tape deck, MP3 player, navigation device, cell phone, CD burner, photocopier, fax machine, and every piece of software (including shareware) would have to support this copy protection.

Two years ago the RIAA was claiming that pirated tunes cost them $300 million a year. Now they claim they're losing three billion annually, a number they've evidently made up in some office, or pulled out of some orifice. Fritz blithely repeated that number when he introduced his bill, saying loses could be as high as eleven billion dollars. The movie industry recently reported ticket sales for 2001 where higher than any year since 1959. The record companies reported sales were down about four percent. They, of course, blame it on piracy, ignoring we are suffering a recession and their product is increasingly lousy and ridiculously overpriced. They evidently forgot to mention that their biggest year was the only full year that Napster was running - their sales didn't start falling until after they succeed in shutting it down.

If this bill passes, it will still be legal to buy, sell and continue using old hardware and software that isn't hobbled. Expect a brisk market in legacy PCs, and a rapid decrease in the sale of new boxes. Would you buy a new PC knowing that you can't play your MP3 collection on it? Me neither. And since the only foolproof way to implement the protections will be hardware based, you can be sure that foreign nations won't want anything to do with American made products either. The PC industry is in a slump right now. This could effectively destroy it. Since the protection will have to be built into nearly every component of a PC, we may even see a rise in long abandoned repair services. Instead of replacing hard drives, sound cards and motherboards as they go bad, we'll be repairing them. That will be good news for the repair shops, bad news for consumers (repairs are more expensive than replacements) and very bad news for the tech industry. Companies who make PCs, and the industries that supply them, are saying they'll cooperate with Fritz, but they are as nervous as the guy who changes the targets at Stevie Wonder's pistol range.

The impact on software will be profound. Declan McCullagh, who runs the very informative site Politech, noted that a program as simple as "Input A$; Print A$" would become illegal, because it could be used to reproduce copyrighted material. Compilers, which are intentionally made as flexible as possible, will be legally required to force protective code into every program generated, making for more bloated software and more difficult debugging. Unlike hardware devices, legacy compilers would be worthless, because it will be illegal to distribute programs created with them. And kiss most shareware good-bye - few people will risk the inevitable lawsuit if their shareware doesn't work exactly the way Disney says it should.

It would also be the death knell for Open Source Software. The open source movement consists of volunteer coders producing operating systems (primarily Linux) and software applications, available at no cost to the end user. The source code comes with the software, so you can fiddle with it all you want and change it to your liking. Although it would be easy to put copy-protection code into Linux, it would be just as easy to remove it. This law would doubtless result in Linux being declared illegal, the first time an OS has been outlawed. Internal Microsoft documents reveal they consider Linux a serious threat. It is more stable than any of their operating systems, and it's free, a price they have a hard time competing with. Nothing would please them more than to see it's rising popularity halted by an act of congress.

Will it pass? In 1998 congress came up with the the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA), which criminalized many practices common among computer users, such as circumventing copy protection to make backups, reverse engineering software to see how it worked, and reviewing the effectiveness of security programs. When it was proposed, lots of experts declared it was so onerous and unfair that it would never get through congress. It is now the law of the land. It has been used by Scientology to shut down web sites critical of their cult, and force Goggle to stop listing those sites in their search engine. It has been used to prevent Linux users from watching their own DVDs on their own PCs. It has been used to arrest a Russian software programer, who was visiting the US, after he wrote a copy-protection breaker in Russia.

I'm tempted to recommend that you write and call your congress weasels and urge them to vote against this bill. (The bill number is #S 2048. A compainon bill is being introduced in the house, but it doesn't have a number yet.) You'll probably be about as successful as a hot dog vender at a PETA convention, but give it a shot anyway. The entertainment industry bribed contributed twelve million dollars to Republicans and twenty-four million dollars to Democrats during the last election. Although they are not all as obvious about it as Fritz, the odds are that your representatives are already bought and paid for.


Additional Information

The text of the bill.

One of Wired's articles on the subject.

Keep up to date on news of this bill at Politech.

Another good article on the subject.

Up to date articles on Scientology's attack on Google.

March, 2002


© 2002 Dave Hitt

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