WASHINGTON – Congress is on the verge of stepping into the widening war between entertainment and Internet companies over digital music and movies, threatening to severely limit consumers' ability to copy and trade such content unless the two sides can come to an agreement.
Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, D-S.C., said he would introduce legislation that would make it a crime to create, sell or distribute any electronics without some sort of copyright protection technology unless companies can come up with their own standards without government intervention.
The goal, say its backers, is to block piracy of digital content. Such a move would apply to everything from compact disc and MP3 music players to personal computers and camcorders. It would prevent consumers from copying, for example, music CDs onto their computers or portable players, and even, perhaps, transferring or e-mailing such content as photographs they have taken themselves.
"It would in essence turn your PC into only a VCR playback machine, and you wouldn't have the capabilities to move digital content around like you do today," complained P.J. McNealy, a research director for the Gartner G2 firm.
"It's a draconian bill that would grind digital distribution to a near halt," he said.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to take up the issue Thursday, hearing testimony from representatives of the Internet and entertainment communities.
The entertainment industry is the primary force behind Hollings' bill. The companies contend they need piracy controls to protect their profits in a world where content in the form of digital information can easily be copied, sent across networks and burned onto a disc.
"If you don't protect content on the Internet, you will end the entertainment business," charged Michael Eisner, chairman of the Walt Disney Co., which, along with News Corporation (Fox News' parent company) and other major media players, has pushed hardest for the rules.
Critics of the industry say that the companies have had the ability to protect their content for years, but they shirked it and are now rushing to the courts and Congress to step in so the companies will not look the villain to their consumers.
"They just don't want to make the hard decisions," complained George Carpinello, an attorney representing Aimster.com (now named Madster.com), a decentralized online file sharing system that is being sued by the recording and music industry.
Jonathan Band, an attorney for Washington, D.C.-based Morrison & Forester, which represents tech companies, said that workable, but not always foolproof, technology already exists that could protect music and movies from piracy.
The music industry is already experimenting with technology that prevents compact discs from being copied. But the technology can also prevent them from being played on certain players and prevents people from transferring music from discs to portable players, an increasingly popular activity.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a technology civil liberties group, notes that the entertainment industry repeatedly fought new technologies in the past — from the phonograph to the VCR — only to discover later that the technologies helped create new revenue.
That argument is supported by House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, a free-market advocate who opposes Hollings' proposal.
"If the government were to set technology standards," said Armey spokesman Richard Diamond, "we'd still be using 8-track tapes right now.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.