Thursday, August 30, 2007

Engineering the Law

Imagine if copy machines had a way of detecting whether you were copying something you printed out yourself or a book or journal article and wouldn't make copies if it were one of the latter. That's what many DVD/VHS players do. Yesterday, as I was setting up my brand new, beautiful mini-dv/DVD decks and attaching them to my brand new, beautiful Mac Pros, I tested one machine only to discover that there was no signal traveling through the firewire cable. I could watch the movie fine on the attached tv, but not through iMovie. I was foiled by engineering and the faculty and students who use the lab to make video clips for presentations won't be able to.

Last January, the Library of Congress agreed to allow for the circumvention of copy protection to make video clips for educational use. What we do in the lab is perfectly legal. To my knowledge, no one comes in and makes a copy of an entire DVD. It would take too long using the play it out method we use to take small snippets. And besides, there are plenty of freely available DVD ripping programs out there if one is so inclined. Let me just say that no pirate in their right mind is going to use a DVD player/computer setup to make massive copies of DVDs when there are programs and devices that will do it much faster and efficiently. All this engineering does is prevent regular people from doing fully legal things with content.

If we wanted to get serious about engineering the law into our machinery, we'd engineer cars to only go the speed limit or to not start if it detects alcohol at a certain level. Both of those activities can and do lead to injury and fatalities, but we don't engineer cars that way because it infringes on the rights of drivers. Whose rights are we protecting by engineering copy protection into our players and computers? Not regular citizens'. We're protecting the movie industry's and the recording industry's. I'm all for pursuing people who steal content, just as I'm all for cracking down on speeders and drunk drivers. But preventing me from working with that content legally just doesn't make sense.

There is a chance that the DMCA and Fair Use and other copyright issues will once again be considered in Congress as the content makers pressure Congress to tighten laws. The latest of these H.R. 1201 (FAIR USE act) is in subcommittee now, but may make it to the floor once again. If you want to be able to use multimedia materials the same way you use text in your teaching and research, you'll pay attention and lobby your congressmen to vote on the side of education, not business.