Mike Godwin and Legal Thoughts on Digital Rights

--Below are some excerpts on Slashdot from attorney Mike Godwin. Godwin answered a number of legal questions on technology as a whole including several that apply to digital music which we placed below. For the full text, which we highly recommend reading, go to the Slashdot posting here.

DMCA - by JoeBaldwin

Do you see the DMCA as a law that can truly benefit the world as a whole, or just a tool of the big corporations (MPAA, I'm looking at you) or whatever?

Godwin:


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Well, I think it's primarily a tool of copyright-holding companies, who continue to be terrified (with justification) about the impact the digital world is going to have on their ways of doing business.

For two or three centuries, depending on how you count, publishers and distributors have relied on the technological happenstance that making a copy of a creative work was difficult. The digital world makes copying easy and cheap, which undercuts a basic assumption behind copyright law, which is that unauthorized copying is generally so expensive that only bad guys with commercial motives would bother to do it. Suddenly, computers and the Internet have created a world in which ordinary, otherwise-law-abiding people are empowered to make unauthorized copies for free, and to share those 100-percent-perfect copies of creative works with other people -- maybe millions of other people.

Now, one response to this is just exactly what we've seen -- the copyright industries have been trying to shore up the existing copyright framework by DMCA lawsuits (either against Internet service providers or against individual users), by seeking architectural changes over computers and the Internet (to make copying harder), by classifying noncommercial copying as a criminal or civil wrong, and so on. And because these are well-moneyed copyright holders who do in fact employ lots of people and contribute to the economy, they have a lot of influence with policy-makers.

The problem here isn't merely that the copyright industries are trying to demonize peer-to-peer file-sharing, and digital copying of content generally. Instead, it's that they don't realize (or don't care) that they're attempting to roll back or otherwise restrict what can only be understood properly as design features of computers and of the Internet itself. Digital technologies at some fundamental level are about the making of perfect copies of information (whether that information is your content or someone else's). It's very hard to put technological hobbles on computers and the Internet that distinguish between lawful copying and unlawful copying -- if you want to throw out that bathwater, you're going to end up throwing out the baby as well.

A better approach, it seems to me, is that suggested by, among others, law professor Jessica Litman in her book DIGITAL COPYRIGHT. In the last chapter of her book, which I recommend to anyone interested in the DMCA and related digital-copyright subjects, Litman suggests that as we revise copyright law in the digital age, we try to make it as much like pre-existing law as possible. I agree with that -- my major criticism of the DMCA is not so much that it serves only one set of interests but rather that it prohibits circumventing copy-protection technologies even if you have an otherwise lawful reason to do so.

I have one other thought on this subject that's been on my mind lately, and it's this: just as much as peer-to-peer file-sharing is a basic feature of the Internet, music sharing (and the sharing of other treasured creative works) is a basic feature of human culture. We want to share the songs we love, the books and movies we love, and so on. I think what we've got to aim for is a legal system that preserves the goals of the Copyright Act while accommodating, to the extent possible, the human impulse to share the cultural creations we love.

Spyware and its legal status - by medication

While I find spam as annoying as the next person, I'm more interested in the legal status of spyware. What are the rights of the individual when he visits a site? What rights to the individual's machine does the site have? Is permanently altering a user's browser a legal operation? What constitutes permission with regard to this type of manipulation?

Godwin:

The general answer is, if you give knowing consent to let this stuff be installed on your system, the spyware company is off the hook. "Knowing consent" probably means something like "did you have a chance to reading the licensing terms before clicking 'Agree'?"

Most of the companies that want to install stuff on your system that monitors what you do or otherwise takes over some of the cycles of your CPU for their own purposes will put such waivers up front in the installation process. Those that don't fully inform you about what they're doing, or that simply install stuff secretly, may be running afoul of the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (or a state-law equivalent).

Lesser-known cases that have a big impact on law. - by Viperion

Mr. Godwin - Lots of /.ers follow the SCO case, followed the DeCSS, Napster, IP, CIPA, etc. What are some lesser known cases/laws that you forsee as having a large potential impact on 'cyberlaw' as we know it?

Godwin:

I think we've come a long way since the early 1990s, when key cases might be handed down that affect online rights and responsibilities without generating a lot of publicity. The cases you hear about now through Slashdot and through traditional news media are the leading cases.

Where the real focus needs to be, it seems to me, is on the efforts by content companies to get the Federal Commuications Commission to become, in effect, the arbiter over DRM and computer arhitectures generally. Some of this is occurring in the FCC's broadcast-flag proceeding, and some in the FCC's administration of "plug-and-play" compatibility for cable services. Right now, the content companies are hoping to steer consumer-electronics companies and computer companies against using analog interfaces, because analog interfaces aren't as easily subjected to copy-protection technologies. Never mind that analog connections may be a source of compatibility among a wide range of different technologies.

Another front in cyberlaw is the efforts of the movie companies to seek changes in state-level regulation that would prohibit you from hooking up your computer, or other "unauthorized devices," to services you're paying for, such as cable television service. What the movie companies would like is for it to be criminal for you to hook up any device that might be more flexible than consumer-electronics tools in capturing and playing back content. I understand their concern -- they're freaked out by the prospect of folks digitizing content and putting it up on their Internet -- but I don't think their concern should trump the general preference we have for convergence between consumer-electronics devices and information-technology devices. The fact is that, already for a lot of us, watching TV on computers is the preferred mode to view TV content. Ditto with movies.

 


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