Tuesday, January 14, 2003

"C'mon, let <i>us</i> decide."

Today the RIAA, the Business Software Alliance,
and the Computer Systems Policy Project announced an href="http://www.bsa.org/usa/press/newsreleases//2003-01-14.1418.phtml">agreement
on issues of digital copyright and piracy. The agreement is touted as "significant...cross-industry coordination", and is painted as a landmark compromise between former rivals.
However, this agreement--which, notably, did not involve consumer interest groups at all--is bad news.

Some background: The RIAA has generally supported
measures like the proposed
CBDTPA, federal legislation which would mandate
copy-protection hardware in all digital devices. This bill represents an even larger threat to consumer rights than the already-passed DMCA, and has earned ridicule and loathing among consumer groups and computer geeks alike.

The technology industry has, by and large, spoken out against the CBDTPA, arguing that government-mandated technology would stifle innovation and increase production costs. Some have taken this as a stance against digital rights management in general, though
should shed doubt on that interpretation.

Meanwhile, Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA) has been pushing legislation
that would reverse some of the damage done by the DMCA by making explicit certain consumer rights, including fair use, in the context of digital content.
This bill has met with acclaim in the internet community, but support from the tech industry has been lukewarm.

Today's "truce" makes it clear why. In the announcement, the RIAA agrees to oppose legislative mandates such as the CBTDPA, and in exchange the tech companies agree to pursue DRM technologies and to oppose fair use legislation such as Boucher's bill.

[H]ow companies satisfy consumer expectations is a business decision that should be driven by the dynamics of the marketplace, and should not be legislated or regulated.

Think about what they're saying. They're saying that fair use, the long-established doctrine that protects consumer interests, should not be enforced by government mandate. Instead, market forces should decide what protection, if any, is granted to the public.

As appealing as that may be to our capitalist sensibilities, it's well established that the Market is no panacea.
As much as we hate regulation, market forces are notoriously dysfunctional in industries dominated by several huge players. When entrenched interests may limit innovation according to their designs, market forces offer no protection for consumers--or for other potential
innovators. Does that sound at all familiar in this context?

What's worse, market forces offer no guarantee of balance when the nature of the market changes suddenly. Today, the consuming masses literally don't know what they want. For all its enthusiasm, the public hasn't yet grasped the
significance of the Internet. The possibility of a collaborative culture of information hasn't occured to most people, and so they don't know that it's something worth asking for. (How many broadband customers have even noticed that their uplink speeds are crippled?)

If we want to find out what that culture would be like, we can't leave it up to "market forces". Not when that culture threatens the livelihood of the biggest players in the market.

UPDATE: Interestingly, the BSA has taken down their article on the agreement, mere hours after posting it. An article expressing reservations about Boucher's bill is still there, though. A separate article on today's agreement can be seen here.

UPDATE 2: The PDF file describing the "policy principles" of the agreement is still available.

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