Civil Liberties and Intellectual Monopolies

We have heard a lot about the many dangers of the PATRIOT Act, and I
think much of it needs to be thrown out.  But there are other recent
laws that have had a more immediate effect on me.  These are laws
that extend what I call "Intellectual Monopolies".

Does anyone here own a VCR?  Do you ever record a TV program and then
watch it later on?  Do you, heaven forbid, even sometimes loan a tape
to someone else, or make a copy for them?

Well 20 years ago, in the famous "Betamax" case, Hollywood took Sony
Corporation to court for making the first VCRs.  In Universal City
Studios v. Sony, two movie studios asked the federal courts to impound
all Betamax VCRs as tools of "piracy."

Spokesperson Jack Valenti uttered these amazing words: "I say to you
that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public
as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone."

Thankfully, the Supreme Court ruled against them.  VCRs are now plentiful.
In fact Hollywood makes a lot of money selling tapes.  And while I know
some people that are *afraid* to try to set the clock on a VCR, I don't
know *anyone* that would compare them to the Boston Strangler.

But the same theme is coming back to haunt us.  This time the
entertainment industry is more wealthy, owns not just movies but also
TV and radio and internet outlets, and their lobbyists have the ear of
Congress.  And I am very afraid of the laws the industry is getting
Congress to pass these days.

The technical details and legal fine points are fascinating to me, but
now isn't the time to go in to them.  But the strategy is again the
same.  When the big corporations see a technology that can work
miracles and let people share creative ideas all by themselves, they
are afraid of creative artists dealing directly with fans, leaving
little room for themselves.  So they try to strangle the technology,
rather than enforcing existing laws to stop people who misuse the

I don't have a problem when copyright holders take action against
individuals who blatantly break the law and distribute thousands of
copies of copyrighted songs or movies to other people.

But I do have a problem when they pass laws that outlaw tinkering with
computers, figuring things out, and sharing that knowledge with other
people.  Laws like the digital millennium copyright act.

For example, the story of a fellow in Norway applies directly to me.
Jon Johansen bought a bunch of Digital Video Discs.  You know, DVDs -
the things that are replacing video tape.  He wanted to play them on
his computer, like many other people.  But he didn't use Microsoft
Windows, and no one had yet developed a way to play DVDs using his
favorite, the Linux operating system.  But he was a bright boy (only
15 years old) and he succeeded in figuring out how to play DVDs on
Linux.  And as a public-spirited fellow, he freely shared his results
with the world over the Internet.

He did not make copies of movies.  He just shared software allowing
people to play movies on Linux.  But the industry got the Norwegian
authorities to throw Jon Johansen in jail.  And they filed suit in the
US against many people who did nothing more than put up web links to
Jon's web site and his software.

Why?  Because they no longer had *control*.  They could no longer
control *how* Jon watched their DVDs.  The entertainment industry has
gotten congress to pass laws which allow them to maintain their
control, taking away my liberties in the process.  More draconian laws
are in process, including ones that would require all computers to
follow rules defined by the entertainment industry.  I think computers
should do what their users want them to do, not act as tools of other

Professor Lessig of Stanford says this is a fight for the very Future
of Ideas.  He says we face a choice between progress and a new Dark
Ages, in which our capacity to create is confined by an architecture
of control and a society more perfectly monitored and filtered than
any in history.

In the '80s they fought the VCR.  Now the computer and the Internet.
I'd like to continue to be able to watch movies with my computer
running Linux, or watch TV without the commercials.  I want kids to be
able to make *fair use* of sound clips for school projects.  I want to
see the free exchange of ideas flourish on the Internet.

I look forward to hearing about issues of freedom that you deal
with, at our upcoming UU Affairs meetings, today and on the 16th.

Neal McBurnett
Last modified: Sun Feb 8 15:39:34 MST 2004