Too Busy For Words - the PaulWay Blog

Mon 19th Jun, 2006

LAQA - Rusty Russell on Technical Protection Measures laws - II

In my last post, I didn't talk about the actual content of Rusty's talk, which was a trifle rude of me. Rusty continues to rise in my estimation - he's a good public speaker, he knows the topic backward, forward and sideways, and he thinks fast on his feet. As much as he might say that he wasn't keen to hear himself again, in listening to the talk several times (which I did when I was testing the various editings and encodings) he was continually fresh and interesting.

The fundamental part of this talk, which he addressed right at the beginning, was that this is not about patents, or whether copyright is wrong, or whether information wants to be free, or whether big media companies are exploiting artists, or whatever. This is specifically about the law limiting the access we have to the copyrighted material we already 'own'. Our rights over a ladder or a bucket of paint are unlimited - as soon as we get it home we can modify it in whatever way we want without the producer's consent. Our rights over audio, video and print are limited by law - you can't make copies and hand them out on a street corner, for instance. The new laws seek to change that further, and make any access which the copyright owner doesn't specifically allow, and which is protected in some way by a "Technological Protection Measure" - encryption, scrambling, or suchlike, illegal: not only can they sue you, but you can be charged and go to jail.

Here is where I respect Rusty the most: he has a fairly simple, clear-cut way to solve this problem. I won't go into the technical definitions: listen to the talk or read the slides for that information. But the change is simple: make the offense directly related to the purpose of distributing unauthorised copies of copyrighted material. This does what the industry wants: stop people wholesale copying CDs, DVDs, games, software or whatever. But it also allows all the fair use that you expect that is not directly related to distributing copies - you can make a copy of your CD for your car, you can copy your tunes onto your iPod, you can play skip over the 'unskippable' ads in DVDs (which many people lamented online and in the talk); you can do all these because you're not distributing copies.

The parliamentary committee that looked into this made a pretty clear judgement that is basically along the same lines. I think most people would go along with the concept that "copying" per se is not the problem, distribution of that copy is the problem. I really think that this has a really good chance of going into law, because it does what the companies claim to want without going any further. It's going to be very hard for the companies to argue that a law based on making distribution illegal doesn't stop "piracy". You can be sure they'll try. But the ACCC and various other government bodies are on the side of the people in this.

(For software the problem is more complex and harder to fight. But Rusty makes the point that effectively this law would require a competitor to ask permission to copy something, which is absolutely the opposite of competition. Sure, enshrined in Australian law is the concept of creating software to allow interoperability. But if Microsoft said that the encryption methods that allow Windows servers to trust one another had been circumvented by Samba, the entire Samba project would be dead. Can you imagine Microsoft giving permission to the Samba team to make their software interoperable?)

The battle still has to be fought, though, and this means petitions have to be signed and posters hung and trumpets sounded. The media industry has very powerful and high-up lobby groups - getting through their spin-doctoring is going to take a lot of voices both large and small. To me, it would work wonders to see a full-page ad in The Australian from Telstra saying that if we allow these laws to go ahead then it would cost them millions (because they use Linux servers running Samba, which would be threatened by the above, as part of their way of keeping costs low) and that cost would naturally be passed on to their customers. (I believe that's the case - I seem to recall a news post several years back saying Telstra had gone with Linux for a large portion of their machines to cut costs on Microsoft licenses. Can anyone confirm?) Can you imagine the uproar?

Get the petitions. Sign them. Put them up high!

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