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Protecting PCs from being useful


By Scott Bradner


At some level it may sound reasonable to stick some magic hardware and software in every computer in order to protect copyrighted material.  At least it seems to sound reasonable to politicians who I expect don't actually use computers.  But, to someone who is not so far into the copyright industry that I've lost all peripheral vision, this seems like a very bad idea.


Senator Hollings, representing at least a few of the people he was supposedly elected to represent, recently introduced the misleadingly titled "Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act."  (, search for S. 2048)  This bill, if passed and signed, would mandate that all "digital media devices" sold across state lines in the U.S. would have to include a  "secure technical means of implementing directions of copyright owners for copyrighted works."  It would also be illegal to "knowingly remove or alter any standard technology in a digital media device lawfully transported in interstate commerce."  For the purposes of this legislation the term 'digital media device' means any hardware or software that reproduces copyrighted works in digital form or converts copyrighted works in digital form into a form whereby the images and sounds are visible or audible.  I.e., your iPod MP3 player, your desktop or laptop computer, the corporate IBM mainframes, TV sets, satellite receivers, your new microwave oven, your kid's new GameBoy, and just about any other piece of electronic gadgetry you can imagine.


It is hard to know where to start when talking about what is wrong with this idea.  But I will not start by saying that copyright is a bad concept.  The idea of copyright is in the U.S. Constitution -- it protects me as an author and you as a consumer because you have more things to consume because the producers, me, Gibbs and Walt Disney, are better incentied to produce.  But it does not follow that the only goal of civilization should be to protect copyright. For now, I will just note one major conceptional issue with the plan.


The main usefulness of computers comes from the fact that we do not have to decide how they are to be used when they are built.  They are general-purpose devices.  People can come up with new applications long after the boxes have been shipped.  Anything that reduces this flexibility of use inhibits future innovation.  Requiring that all computing hardware include, and be forced to use, any specific function, copyright protection or whatever, means that there are restrictions to future uses of the device. 


I'll note in passing that under the restrictions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, it will be almost impossible to come up with a reliable scheme since any discussion of flaws in a proposal could be prosecuted.


Copyrighted materials do need protection, but that protection should not be at the expense of the technical flexibility that has been the most important driver of our economy over the last 20 years.  Particularly, since the solution would not actually work.


disclaimer:  Harvard has trained lawyers on all sides in this fight (a good way to ensure the need for more lawyers) but none of them advised me in forming my opinion.