Digital Rights Battle

May 26, 2003  •  Post A Comment

In a significant blow to the Hollywood studios, GOP Gov. Bill Owens of Colorado last week vetoed legislation that critics charge could have seriously jeopardized the ability of consumers to use digital recording devices in their homes.
At least according to critics, the bill, promoted by the Motion Picture Association of America, could have required consumers to get the permission of their cable operator or other telecommunications service provider before hooking up digital recording devices to their cable-equipped TV sets.
MPAA said the legislation, which it has been quietly pushing in state legislatures across the nation, is needed to fight piracy, targeting consumers who try to steal programming electronically.
But in a May 21 statement Gov. Owens said the proposed law could “stifle legal activity by entities all along the high-tech spectrum, from manufacturers of communications parts to sellers of communications services.”
Representatives of the Consumer Electronics Association hailed the governor’s decision, making clear that they hope it will serve as precedent in the 15 states where similar MPAA-backed measures are currently pending or have already been signed into law.
“We think that’s a smart, pro-technology, pro-consumer move,” said Michael Petricone, VP of technology policy for CEA.
But MPAA representatives vowed to re-introduce legislation in the Colorado Legislature next year.
“We can always come back, and we intend to,” said Vans Stevenson, MPAA senior VP, state legislative affairs.
It’s all part of an escalating lobbying war between MPAA and CEA over the fundamental rights of consumers in an increasingly digital world.
Boil it all down, and MPAA says tough legislation is needed, including civil and criminal penalties, to thwart piracy in an age when technology is making electronic rip-offs of studio property ever easier.
But CEA and its watchdog group allies say the MPAA legislation goes way overboard, promoting initiatives that would give cable operators and Hollywood studios the ultimate right to dictate what technology consumers can legally use in their homes.
As one measure of the dispute’s temperature, representatives of both sides are accusing each other of distortions or even outright deceptions to promote their causes.
“When the facts of this debate failed to support their cause, opponents of this legislation resorted to untruths and sky-is-falling tactics,” said MPAA’s Mr. Stevenson.
“They [MPAA lobbyists] were not fully forthcoming about the effects of the bill and how broad it is,” said Ren Bucholz, a spokesman for the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation.
MPAA’s Mr. Stevenson said criminals are the only ones who have something to fear from the association’s initiative.
“If you’re a thief, this bill would be troublesome; if you’re not, it won’t be,” he said.
But Mike Godwin, senior technology counsel for the public-interest advocacy group Public Knowledge, said the MPAA legislation is essentially an effort by Hollywood to prevent consumers from using TiVo and other personal video recording technologies to record shows.
“If you can save copies to your hard drive, maybe you won’t buy their boxed sets,” Mr. Godwin said. “That’s their fear. They’d like to charge you a ticket every time to watch it if they could.”
Despite Gov. Owens’ veto, the legislation’s critics appear to be behind the curve on the issue. According to MPAA, similar bills have already been signed into law in seven states-Arkansas, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Illinois.
“Ultimately, we hope to have it in all 50 states,” Mr. Stevenson said.
MPAA’s critics , however, are urging legislators in those states to undo the measures.
“We’re looking at repeal or amendment movements,” said the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Mr. Bucholz.
Added CEA’s Mr. Petricone, “These should be federal issues. Certainly that’s something we support.”