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Last Updated: Monday, 10 May, 2004, 09:58 GMT 10:58 UK
Press play for politics
Dot.life - where technology meets life, every Monday
By Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent

Music online
What should we be allowed to do with the music we buy?
How punitive laws on copyright and e-snooping might just make activists of us all.

It's not just technology that defines what the future will be like. Laws do too.

Technology and gadgets set the limit on what is possible. Laws dictate what is permissible - or, at least, try to.

One man who knows better than most about this conflict between the law and technology is Cory Doctorow, who recently moved to London to work for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the body which aims to ensure that legislation nurtures rather than overrides digital rights.

One of the web's "neterati", he is co-editor of the Boing Boing weblog, which aims to be "a directory of wonderful things", and a science-fiction writer.

Sound arguments

He says the EFF's most obvious area of concern is the continuing wrangle over music copyright.

The US record companies want - and have largely got - laws that impose severe penalties for breach of copyright. Europe, too, has made an effort to crack down on those who copy music and films.

Cory Doctorow, EFF's European affairs coordinator
There's any amount of entrepreneurial enterprise that thrives in weaker copyright regimes
Cory Doctorow
These laws allow the Recording Industry Association of America to take action against thousands of people sharing music online, many of whom are forced into settlements because the penalties if they lost would be so severe.

For Mr Doctorow and the EFF, this over-zealous protection of copyright is short-sighted.

"There's nothing wrong with regulation, but I would love to see a race to the top rather than the bottom," says Mr Doctorow.

Current copyright controls are about protecting the economic interests of 2% of rights-holders at the expense of the other 98%, and an IT industry that's many times the size of the entertainment industry, he says.

This takes little account of the broader social benefits of less punitive regimes.

"There's any amount of entrepreneurial enterprise that thrives in weaker copyright regimes. They should try for the largest amount of creativity from the largest amount of players."

Cash cows

Such strict laws help control the people that can do least about them - consumers. Music firms are not putting digital locks on CDs and downloaded files to deter pirates.

Photo of blank CD and laptop
File-sharing has been blamed for the slump in music sales
"Technical sophisticates and dishonest users are not stopped by this. Ukrainian pirate gangs are not slowed down by digital rights management," he says.

Instead these locks milk cash from ordinary consumers, such as the mother unable to make a video copy of an expensive DVD in case the children break it.

"The people slowed down by [digital locks] are those that can least afford it. These people are just going to get screwed and that's a shame."

At present, the only way around this is to swap files online, to find ways to crack the locks or to buy from pirates. It would be far better, the EFF and Mr Doctorow believes, if file sharers could buy a cheap blanket licence - much like those granted to radio stations - that allows them to swap files.

Cash generated by the licence would be shared with record makers, and a small portion given to artists.

Power to the people

In the US, copyright laws and lawsuits against file-swappers are gradually politicising everyday activities - folk who normally shy away from politics have been spurred into writing letters or e-mails to their representatives.

In the EFF's early days, it co-ordinated the writing of about 400 letters. Today campaigns with at least 15,000 participants are not uncommon.

ID card
ID cards have proved controversial
This lobbying has proved effective. In the US, it has forced politicians to introduce laws limiting media consolidation, against the wishes of groups wanting to merge into media giants.

And in the UK, early proposals to extend rights to snoop on the electronic communications of hundreds of organisations have been defeated after to a fax-writing campaign. The government has also received an unprecedented number of submissions on ID cards.

"This says to me that we have a way to communicate that our politicians cannot cope with," Mr Doctorow says.

He believes that the creeping activism of digital life will only increase as copyright controls in the UK start to bite. Then he expects consumers to rebel and demand want they want, rather than what the powers-that-be try to impose.

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