Getting wired:Of copyrights and copywrongs

The media industries are fighting to protect their interests in the face of new technology.

The media industries are fighting to protect their interests in the face of new technology.

Last week I wrote about the rise of MP3, the people's music compression technology, despite the fear and loathing it engenders among the music industry. That executives in the music business are increasingly worried can be gauged by an unusual declaration they have made along with leading technology companies.

Seven principles are enunciated, with the central ones proclaiming that solutions to the problem of illegal digital copies of copyrighted materials should be left to the industry, and not mandated by governments - for example, in the form of copy protection built in to all playback devices, which would include computers.

Although it is a positive sign that the Recording Industry Association of America, one of the signatories to these policy principles, is no longer pushing for such Draconian legislation, this does not mean it is throwing in the towel. But it may signal a slightly more realistic attitude from an industry whose refusal to sell downloadable music for a sensible price has been one of the prime reasons tens of millions of its customers have used technologies such as Napster to share illegal copies of songs.

The fact that another fierce group of opponents of digital copying, the Hollywood studios, refused to sign up to the principles is proof that there are growing divisions among the industries whose businesses depend on copyrighted material, with music playing a nominal dove to film's hawks.

The film studios have had mixed success in the copyright field recently. The movie industry suffered a setback when the Norwegian teenager Jon Johansen, who was accused of writing and publishing a DVD descrambling program, was acquitted. But it also won an extremely important case concerning the legality of a recent extension of US copyrights.

This 20-year freeze meant that the first sound movies will not enter the public domain, nor will many famous songs - which is obviously convenient for the media conglomerates that currently derive plenty of revenue from them.

Copyright was meant to keep works out of the public domain for a limited period, not forever through a series of extensions. A court case was brought to challenge this worrying US development - which could very easily be exported to Europe given the habit of "harmonisation" that only ever seems to work for the benefit of copyright holders.

The main site of the plaintiffs in Eldred v. Ashcroft is rather disappointing, given the collective net-savviness behind it. There is a news section, which is rather dry, and relevant legal documents, which are even drier. The best page is that of links to relevant materials. But what this and the site in general lacks is any thorough explanation of what issues are at stake, and why the action has been undertaken.

A good place to get both of these is the amicus brief filed by Eben Moglen, an eloquent and deep-thinking professor of law who was once an IBM programmer, and is now general counsel to the Free Software Foundation.

As the list of people directly involved with the Eldred case indicates, the lead lawyer is Lawrence Lessig. He has already made quite a name for himself in the domain where law meets internet technology, notably through two books, Code, and other laws of cyberspace, and The future of ideas: the fate of the commons in the connected world.

His home page is one of the best places to keep up to date with the fight against what might be called copywrongs, and his blog is one of the more readable examples of the genre.

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