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Monday, 26 March, 2001, 11:22 GMT 12:22 UK
Stopping the copying

By BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward

As music, movies and almost everything else go digital it could get a lot harder to make reproductions of anything you want.

Industry groups, standards bodies, technology companies, politicians and many others are working on plans or technologies that will limit the numbers of times you can copy music files, films, images and even programmes off the television.

Currently all eyes are focussed on the fight between the recording industry and MP3 swapping service Napster.

But the lawsuits and action against consumers sparked by that spat could simply be the first skirmish in a series of conflicts which pits people against copyright holders over the right to listen to, look at and use digital content.

The music industry is taking on Napster not just because it is popular but because of what it represents - the unfettered copying of digital music.

Secure music

In early 1999 the recording industry established the Secure Digital Music Initiative which, as its name suggests, is attempting to establish ways of protecting digital music from piracy as it is passed around.

Napster screen grab
Most minds are focused on the Napster battle
Early versions of the standards were criticised for being cumbersome and making it far harder to move music between players owned by the same person.

Hand-in-hand with this initiative go projects by music companies to use persistent protection schemes for the tracks they are putting online.

These embed a watermark in a music track which denotes who can use it. If the track is passed on to someone who does not have permission to play it, that person will have to buy a licence before they can listen.

Clay Shirky, an analyst at The Accelerator Group and professor of film and media at Hunter College in New York, doubts people will be happy with this.

He thinks any technology which puts obstacles in the way of consumers is likely to be rejected by them.

But the music industry is likely to want some form of protection system for music files especially if record companies start to open up their back catalogues.

Police

Without protection the companies fear only a few people will pay and the rest will use pirated copies.

The music industry has been watching who is pirating what via Napster for some time. Occasionally it has passed on details to police forces.

Sony Playstation handset
Games manufacturers are also fending off pirates
This week it emerged that the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry is using a sophisticated tracking system that can track pirated pop across the web.

But this state of affairs could be repeated many times over the next few years as the creeping digitisation of content gathers pace.

DVD makers have been vigorous in their attempts to stamp out distribution of the DeCSS program that lets people play DVDs on Linux machines and also bypasses the copyright protection system on the discs.

This protection system already makes it harder to copy DVDs or play them outside a particular region.

Also some computer companies have been working on a system called Content Protection for Recordable Media, which can be installed on hard discs to restrict and monitor the movement of digital media.

Now cyber civil-liberties group the Electronic Frontier Foundation has kicked off the Campaign for Audiovisual Free Expression which wants to fight the growing number of restrictions being placed on what people can do with digital data.

Broadcasting moves

The US broadcasting authorities have already decided to outlaw the copying of High Definition Television pictures because they fear that if they don't they will be providing pirates with a high-quality video feed they can plumb at leisure.

Another group is now working on ways to secure standard digital TV programmes to limit, rather than stop, the number of times they can be copied.

A similar system could soon be in use in Europe because the European Broadcasting Union is working on a watermarking system for digital TV broadcasts to do exactly the same.

Widescreen television
Digital TV programmes could also be protected
Consumers could then lose the ability to make or pass around copies of something they caught on TV.

Many people, such as net luminary John Gilmore, are fiercely critical of these moves to outlaw copying and restrict what consumers can do.

He says: "Copy protection pretends that the law and some fancy footwork with industrial cartels can maintain our current economic structures, in the face of a hurricane of positive technological change that is picking them up and sending them whirling like so many autumn leaves."

If all these technologies and initiatives take hold it might mean that at worst you can't make copies of anything, or at best, you have to pay every time you want to reproduce anything.

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See also:

22 Mar 01 | Business
Napster faces new legal challenge
15 Mar 01 | Entertainment
Copyright campaign targets contracts
19 Apr 00 | Business
Protecting your copyright on the web
30 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
Doing the rights thing
22 Mar 01 | TV and Radio
Television storms satellite frontiers
26 Jan 01 | Sci/Tech
Toasting the crackers
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