IF YOU HAVE a fast computer and a fast Internet connection, you make Hollywood nervous. Movie and TV studios are worried not because of what you're doing now, but because of what you might do in the near future: grab digital content with your computer and rebroadcast it online.
Which is why the studios, along with other content providers, have begun a campaign to stop you from ever being able to do such a thing. As music software designer Selene Makarios puts it, this effort represents "little less than an attempt to outlaw general-purpose computers."
Maybe you loved Napster or maybe you hated it, but the right to start a Napster, or to infringe copyright and get away with it, is not what's at issue here. At some date in the near future, perhaps as early as 2010, people may no longer be able to do the kinds of things they routinely do with their digital tools today. They may no longer be able, for example to move music or video files easily from one of their computers to another, even if the other is a few feet away in the same house. Their music collections, reduced to MP3s, may be movable to a limited extent, unless their hardware doesn't allow it. The digital videos they shot in 1999 may be unplayable on their desktop and laptop computers.
Programmers trying to come up with, say, the next great version of the Linux operating system may find their development efforts put them at risk of civil and criminal penalties. Indeed, their sons and daughters in grade school computer classes may face similar risks if the broadest of the changes now being proposed-a ban on software, hardware, and any other digital-transmission technology that does not incorporate copyright protection-becomes law.
Whether this scenario comes to pass depends mainly on the outcome of an emerging struggle between the content industries and the information technology industries. The Content Faction includes copyright holders such as movie and TV studios, record companies, and book publishers. The Tech Faction includes computer makers, software companies, and manufacturers of related devices such as CD burners, MP3 players, and Internet routers. In this war over the future shape of digital technology, it's computer users who may suffer the collateral damage.
Digital television will be the first battleground. Unlike DVD movies, which are encrypted on the disk and decrypted every time they're played, digital broadcast television has to be unencrypted. For one thing, the Federal Communications Commission requires that broadcast television be sent "in the clear." (The rationale is that broadcasters are custodians of a public resource-the part of the electromagnetic spectrum used for television-and therefore have to make whatever they pump into that spectrum available to everyone.) Then, too, digital TV has to reach existing digital television sets, which cannot decode encrypted broadcasts.
The lack of encryption, coupled with digital TV's high quality poses a problem for copyright holders. If a home viewer can find a way to copy the content of a digital broadcast, he or she can reproduce it digitally over the Internet (or elsewhere), and everybody can get that high-quality digital content for free. This possibility worries the movie and TV studios, which repackage old television shows for sale to individuals as DVDs or videotapes and sell cable channels and broadcast stations the right to air reruns. Who is going to buy DVDs or tapes of TV shows or movies they can get for free online through peer-to-peer file sharing? And if everybody is trading high-quality digital copies of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Law & Order over the Internet, who's going to watch the reruns on, respectively, Fox's F/X network or the Arts & Entertainment channel? What advertisers are going to sponsor those...