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Some learning going on?

by Scott Bradner

They fight technology each time something new shows up. When they lose, as they have so far, it turns out they actually win. But they still fight the next time.

The "they" in the above are copyright holders, in particular the entertainment industry. They fought audio tape, VCRs, DAT tape and now MP3 and the Internet. Each time they lost all, or mostly all, of their arguments when they went to court. In one case, DAT tape recorders, they went to congress to get what they could not get in court. Much of the ugly history can be found at Each time the principal effect turned out to be a delay in the widespread availability of some new technology. Considering the clarity of the Supreme Court decision in the VCR case it is not hard to see why the copyright people went to congress instead of just depending on the courts. "The sale of copying equipment, ... does not constitute contributory infringement if the product is widely used for legitimate, unobjectionable purposes, or, indeed, is merely capable of substantial noninfringing uses." ( Yet, last year they did the same thing again and went to court in an attempt to get a portable MP3 player banned from sale in the U.S. They have again lost in court, although they could still appeal to the Supreme Court.

What's wrong with this picture? The main thing is that every time they have lost and the new technology becomes widely available, they make a pile of money. The best example being VCRs. The movie industry now makes almost as much money off of video sales as they do from first run theatre tickets. VCRs have provided a way for the movie people to sell to couch potatoes who never want to go out to the movies. One place this has not happened is DAT, the legal delay seems to have killed the technology.

There may be a hint that learning is going on in the copyright world.

The Recording Industry Association of America ( is working on a plan that will permit the sale of MP3 devices (which the courts might force anyway) in exchange for an agreement by the equipment vendors to also support some yet to be finalized secure digital audio technology in the future.

But what I don't see is real thinking. Why don't the copyright owners figure out new ways to do business in which consumer honesty is not penalized as much as it is with CDs - where the sales price is 10 to 15 times the manufacturing cost (and you know the artists are not getting all the difference.) If I could legally download a single song over the net for 50 cents, I'd do that in a heartbeat rather than go through the pain of copying a friend's CD or using an illegal download site that might keep a log of visitors.

disclaimer: Real thinking is what Harvard is all about but the above lament is mine alone.