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Digital Assault

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Familiar terrain to regular readers of Blogcritics, but the NY Times’ Amy Harmon takes a reasonable look at the state of digital media regarding copy protection and resultant consumer issues:

    Lying dormant in virtually every digital cable box in America is technology that can prevent viewers from recording certain programs to watch them later. Soon, several Hollywood studios are planning to tell cable operators to flip the switch.

    People who have become accustomed to recording pay-per-view and video-on-demand shows will probably still be able to, the studios say — so long as they pay an extra fee.

    The move is one of a range of new restrictions Hollywood is beginning to impose on digital movies, music and television. After years of battling online piracy in court, media executives are fighting technology with technology, locking up their products with the same types of digital tools that millions of people have used to get the products free over the Internet.

    ….The entertainment industry’s lobbying efforts have ignited protests by consumer groups and some technology companies, which would need to modify their machines to make the arrangements work. They complain that many of the presumed benefits of the new digital world would be lost under such a system.

    Someone who records a favorite show onto a hard drive in the living room would not be able to retrieve and watch it over a wireless network from another room, for instance, or from a country home. And since current DVD players would not recognize the new electronic flags, they would not be able to play back programs recorded under such a system.

    Besides, critics note, a handful of people are sure to find a way around the security system, as happened with DVD’s. While most consumers never copy DVD’s, thousands of films are freely available on the Internet because a small number of people do.

    “This isn’t going to stop serious hackers,” said Mark Cooper, the research director for the Consumer Federation of America. “All you end up with here is an inconvenience to the average consumer.”

    Besides inconvenience, some critics argue that digitally enforced restrictions on copying threaten an aspect of free speech rights that copyright law has traditionally respected. This “fair use” right to use snippets of copyrighted works for the purpose of parody or criticism or scholarship, they say, is essentially impossible to exercise if the material is protected with digital locks and federal law makes it illegal to unlock them.

    Hollywood executives say they know they may need to adjust to meet consumer demands. James B. Ramo, the chief executive of Movielink, the Internet movie service, said the security software’s flexibility was one of its chief virtues.

    “We’re not locked into these rules,” Mr. Ramo said. “We’re just testing them out.”

The obvious unstated matter here is the importance of consumers voicing their objections to these restrictions on fair use and free speech – there are many more of us than there are of them, but so far “they” are much better organized and have exerted much more clout. These are our rights being abridged in the name of copyright protection: learn the facts and take action before it is too late.

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