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Hollywood big-guns take aim at three Webmasters

Even this kind of intimidation may fail to protect on-line copyrights

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Three New York men are being sued in federal court for allegedly distributing software which decodes the copyright protection of DVD disks, and allows their contents to be downloaded onto a computer's hard disk. This would enable virtually anyone with an online computer to distribute a DVD's content worldwide via the Internet. Eight Hollywood studios, Universal, Paramount, MGM, Tristar, Columbia, Time Warner, Disney and 20th Century Fox have teamed up to file the suit against the three New Yorkers, Shawn Reimerdes, Eric Corley and Roman Kazan. "This is a case of theft," according to Motion Picture Association of America President Jack Valenti. "The posting of the de-encryption formula is no different from making and then distributing unauthorised keys to a department store." Well, it's a lot different, actually, as it involves neither trespassing, nor any potential for causing personal injury or property damage, nor any theft of an original, physical copy of the disputed intellectual property. In truth, it's no different from making copies of a video or audio cassette, which is legal in the USA if done for personal convenience and not for profit, though the potential here for profiteers to re-distribute copyrighted content worldwide over the Internet makes it understandably frightening to anyone in the entertainment industry. Valenti's hysterical overstatement speaks to a fundamental weakness in the entertainment industry's relationship with the Internet. As much as it wants to distribute its wares in the over-hyped "electronic marketplace", it has to be terrified of the very technology it seeks to exploit. There is no other medium which offers anything approaching the Net's potential for distributing vast reams of bootleg audio and video files worldwide. It is because the Net's capacity to simplify and facilitate bootlegging is so immense and so uncontrollable that the entertainment industry has been so churlish about protecting its copyrights. Various industry front groups, including the Motion Picture Association, have issued numerous threatening rants about their ambitions to tighten on-line copyright protections. To date, their efforts -- both technical and legislative -- have been hopelessly ineffective, owing to the very flexibility and anonymity built in to the Net and the technology by which their products are recorded. Because of the superstitious faith with which technology is usually venerated, it is unthinkable to most that something like the Internet might not be advantageous to all people for all purposes. Any heretical points of view suggesting that this might not be the case will have to settle in gradually, one instance at a time, as experience contradicts imagination. Film and music are two instances where that settling in seems likely to occur sooner rather than later. If the entertainment industry were to take a hard, adult look at what it can reasonably accomplish in protecting its products from mass, on-line redistribution, it might just conclude that such products, taken as a species, simply don't belong on the Internet. ®

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