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The center of the universe


By Scott Bradner


You have to admit that the copyright folk are consistent as well as persistent.  Their latest idea, introduced in Congress by four of their water boys, is to legitimize them hacking into your computer on a whim.  This follows on the heels of a proposal to require that every computing device contain incorruptible logic to enforce their copyrights as they see fit.  These are very bad ideas.  They are bad ideas for many reasons.  The ideas are so bad that one might leap to the conclusion that these people, and their congressional servants, are evil people.  I don't think they are all that evil, I think they are just remarkably self-centered.


Fellow columnist Mark Gibbs wrote about the prospect of a bill a few weeks ago ("RIAA: Licensed to hack?" NW 7/8/02), now the bill has been introduced ( and its every bit as bad as Mark expected.


The bill exempts copyright holders, or anyone authorized on their behalf, of all criminal or civil liability that otherwise would arise out of an attack on your computer if they have a reasonable basis to think that you may be distributing copyrighted files in a peer-to-peer network.  The bill does not define "reasonable."  


You do have a recourse. The bill says that anyone mounting such an attack has to tell you, if you ask, what they are doing and why.  But the bill says that all information about such attacks is to be kept secret so I'm not quite sure how you would know who to ask.  If you manage to figure out who is attacking you the law says you can ask the Attorney General if it's OK for you to sue the attacker for actual monetary costs and attorney fees. So I set up a shell company, claim that I have copyrights on my columns and get someone to tell me that you are sent a copy of a column to someone sometime, then I disrupt your business just so you can not do that bad thing again.  The most that the law lets the government do is to get an injunction to keep me from destroying your business again.  If you sue my shell company all you would get, if you win, will not compensate you for your lost customers.


The above is just one of hundreds of ways that this dumb proposal could be used to disrupt the business of the Internet.  But the worst thing the proposal does is to bless vigilante action - something that I thought most societies are against.


How did we get to this point?  It seems to me that the basic problem is that the copyright people think the world revolves around them.  They seem to think that everything should be subservient to their perceived needs in spite of the fact that their entire business is a very very small part of the world's economy.


As MIT's Dave Clark said the other day about some other silliness: they "have a badly out of balance ego-to-clue ratio."


disclaimer:  Harvard has plenty of ego and plenty of clue, it is for others to judge the balance and the above anti-vigilante  rant is mine.