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Techies Criticize Digital Copyright Bill

Consumers are sending e-mails in droves to Capitol Hill lawmakers, complaining that a proposed Senate bill would kill their freedom to listen to music and watch movies. 

DigitalConsumer.org, formed just before Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings proposed legislation that would force technology companies to restrict the ability of MP3s and digital movie files to be copied or played, is leading the charge against the measure. 

"[The Hollings] bill would treat every customer like a potential criminal," said Joe Kraus, founder of the now-defunct Excite Internet portal and head of DigitalConsumer.org. 

Kraus testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee in March against such government intervention and started his Web site soon afterward. So far, he said his organization has gathered 25,000 names and e-mails and is sending more than 80,000 faxes to congressional representatives. 

"It's a way to give consumers a voice in the debate, which they historically never had," Kraus said. 

The Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act of 2002 would require that the entertainment and technology industries jointly come up with standards to protect copyrighted films, television shows and songs from being downloaded, copied or swapped illegally. 

If the industries cannot devise standards within one year, the government would step in and do it for them by forcing consumer-electronics, computer and software manufacturers to build "locks" into their products, ensuring that duplicating copyrighted material, or playing illegally copied material, would be impossible. 

Hollings, D-S.C., the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, is backed by members of the entertainment industry, who say tough standards would remove the threat that the downloading and swapping of music and movies have posed to them for the past few years. 

The entertainment giants, led by the Walt Disney Co., have lobbied hard for the bill and have given Hollings nearly $300,000 in campaign contributions in the past five years. 

"If you don't protect content on the Internet, you will end the entertainment business," said Disney chairman Michael Eisner recently in hearings before the Commerce Committee. 

But technology companies strongly oppose the measure, saying it would not only lead to price increases for consumers, but might violate the "fair use" clause in existing copyright law, which among other things allows the purchaser of a copyrighted item — whether a CD, book or videotape — to make multiple copies for individual personal use. 

Also at stake is the twenty-year-old Supreme Court ruling legalizing VCRs, which states that television viewers have a right to "time shift" their favorite shows for personal convenience. 

"Until consumers' fair-use rights are asserted, you have media companies denying that they even exist," complained Kraus. He pointed out that consumers already unknowingly purchase copy-protected CDs that won't play on computers, and that most DVD players already have special restrictions built their software. 

Kraus said his group has designed a "Technology User's Bill of Rights" to maintain that fair use goes both ways, protecting copyright holders as well as making it possible for consumers to enjoy media with a level of freedom and flexibility. 

Hollings insists his bill would not infringe on fair-use provisions. 

At least one big technology company has targeted public opinion regarding the bill. The personal-computer maker and retailer Gateway launched a series of nationwide radio and television ads Wednesday evening suggesting that consumers download MP3s from the Gateway Web site and that the company "supports your right to enjoy digital music legally." 

The "Digital Music Zone" on the Gateway site implores the visitor to "find out what's possible, get free downloads, and get smart about your rights as a consumer." 

Judging by the comments posted on the Web site of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which also has a hand in the legislation, Gateway may not need much help. 

"If the consumer has legally acquired the media, what the person does with that media FOR THEIR OWN PRIVATE USE should be of no concern to the government," said Robert Horton of Clarkston, Michigan, who posted a message into the comments field on the committee's digital-rights management page. 

"Passing this legislation will make computers so much harder to use that upgrading to a new one will not be desirable and many more people will decide to make do with the equipment they already have," wrote Wayne Klick of Albuquerque, New Mexico. "[The bill] will cripple an industry that has become extremely important to our economy." 

"The tech community and Internet users have really used this singularly as a forum for their objections to the Hollings bill," said Judiciary Committee Spokeswoman Mimi Devlin, who added that her office is getting at least 100 e-mails a day — all of them against the proposal. 

To read postings on the Senate Judiciary Committee's Web site, click here.