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Autumn Symposium Rakes Over Copyright and Patent Law

by Andy Oram
11/10/2005

The organizers of the recent Symposium on Intellectual Property, Creativity, and the Innovation Process must possess extraordinary confidence in their mastery of the kind of intellectual crowd control required to manage the range of people they invited to the conference, from computer hackers shouting "Let me be free!" to businesspeople asking, "How can I find a revenue model in the new technologies and media?" alongside artists asking, "How can I find a revenue model in the new technologies and media?" (yes, artists are just businesspeople with funny haircuts) to librarians claiming, "Whatever emerges, we want a part of it," and a bevy of lawyers wondering, "How do all the doctrines I learned in law school--or (more urgently) teach in law school--hold up in the path of the current technological and social onslaught?"

Well, they managed it, and the two days in Chapel Hill, North Carolina were widely acknowledged to be productive and eye-opening. One couldn't help but see things one hadn't seen before in a conference that attracted Marybeth Peters--register of copyrights, who has been heading the U.S. Copyright Office since 1994, a critical period of change--as well as a counsel for intellectual property at the U.S. Patent Office, IP law critic James Boyle, open source advocate Chris DiBona, EFF representative and science-fiction author Cory Doctorow, several managers from Red Hat, a panelist from Microsoft, lawyers from Canada (who somehow care what goes on in the rogue nation to their south), and various journalists and academics to act as witnesses. All in all, about a hundred people, half of them local, attended.

The glow of this conference lingers on in the shape of a new center that has just been announced by the law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a conference sponsor. Conference organizer David Harrison says of the center that "Leading researchers and practitioners in all areas that depend upon innovation and creativity will work together to achieve real change through practical applications. The center is intended to provide applied solutions to preserving and promoting the creative incentives necessary for social, cultural, and economic growth." My hope is it will lead to more conferences of this nature and ultimately, new policy.

Digital Rights Management: The Unmasking of a Scam

Several years ago, when Congress passed a law requiring content filters in schools and libraries that receive federal funds, I wrote a high-handed article calling such filters a scam. I found reasons to excoriate Congress, even on purely technical grounds, for requiring the filters' use. Paying money for something that doesn't work (even to fulfill its own questionable goals) just drags down the economic foundations of an organization.

Much the same could be said for digital rights management (DRM), which has not been required by law (yet) but seems to win adherents in a similar manner through fear. The goal of DRM is to let someone make limited use of some content (for instance, viewing it on approved devices) while cutting off other uses. There are many forms of DRM, ranging from simply encrypting content (as satellite TV does) to embedding sophisticated watermarks or other identifying information in a work--and sometimes embedding information about the purchaser, which can lead to privacy violations.

Most of us can report a story where poorly coded software rendered some product or content unusable. Even when it works the way the manufacturer intended it, DRM keeps people from doing quite reasonable things, such as taking a document home from work or to a class. Cory Doctorow virtuosically skewered DRM at the conference, explaining how it cuts off both current benefits and potential opportunities. He pointed out that DVDs haven't included any substantial new features since their first introduction ten years ago (think, by contrast, how much the Web has changed in ten years), and blamed this stagnation on the control that the studios exert over the making of DVD players.

Even Edward Klaris, in a lovely demonstration of the new DVD collection called The Complete New Yorker, admitted that its embedded DRM would not stop determined crackers. He said simply that this DRM would put barriers in the way of normal users making copies, which seemed, oddly enough, to be its goal. There is nothing new about DRM hampering honest users while failing to offer protection against real abuse. Klaris is to be commended for admitting it. And The Complete New Yorker is, to be sure, a beautiful production well worth the money (which comes out to about four cents per issue). I'm just worried that something will go wrong with its software and cripple its use, as happened to me several years ago with the National Geographic on CD.

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