The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is suing to stop RealPlayer’s RealDVD from being sold to computer owners. RealDVD lets you make backup copies of your movie DVDs onto your computer. It doesn’t let you make new DVDs or share the files from your computer with others — it just lets you keep for yourself a backup. MPAA says this means computer users “steal” movies.
Why do you care? This affects you because it is another case of big corporations using their ability to influence our government to gain financial advantages that cost us money and convenience.
The MPAA sues people and companies that they say are “stealing” their movies. Of course within reason this is necessary and proper. But in their efforts to protect movie company profits, MPAA has been going too far, acting similarly to the infamous Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the recording industry group that sues anyone they suspect may have downloaded a tune, in order to make an example of them. (See MPAA Sues Grandfather for $600,000. His 12-year-old son had downloaded a movie.)
But fear that people are “stealing” may not be the real reason behind this lawsuit. In Why Hollywood Hates RealDVD, Electronic Frontier Foundation Senior Staff Attorney Fred von Lohmann writes that this is about a strategy to force Real and others to pay license fees to MPAA when they come up with new technologies. He writes that MPAA’s position,
“. . . forces technology companies to enter into license agreements before they build products that can play movies. . . . Those license agreements, in turn, define what the devices can and can’t do, thereby protecting Hollywood business models from disruptive innovation.”
This fight traces back to the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The DMCA limits how technology can be used, even limiting researchers from studying various kinds of computer encryption and other algorithms. Basically, it says that companies can’t make products that enable people to distribute their own copies of copyrighted material. Copyrighted music and movies contain code that tells the computer that this file can’t be copied, and computers and programs have to contain code that recognizes this.
Copyright, according to our constitution, is intended to “promot[ing] the progress of science and useful arts”. The idea was to grant a legal monopoly on profiting from this kind of work for a few years to provide an incentive and reward for scientific research and creativity. This means the government uses its power to stop competition. As it applies to the arts this is how authors, musicians, filmmakers and others are able to make a living at all and that is why it is in the Constitution. But like so many corporate-inspired distortions of our laws and values in the last several years, the DMCA is primarily about benefiting big, established corporations and blocking rather than promoting innovation. In fact, when used like this it stifles innovation.
Something we have seen in recent years is businesses misusing legal tactics to increase profits. In other words, using their money-bought influence over our government to get special favors such as tax breaks, subsidies, grants of monopolies, “no-bid” contracts, etc.
Lawrence Lessig is a Professor of Law at Stanford Law School and founder of the school’s Center for Internet and Society. He teaches and writes in the areas of constitutional law, contracts, and the law of cyberspace. In 1999 he said, “This is law and code conspiring to tilt market forces quite decidedly in one direction rather than another.”
More recently Lessig has written
“. . . when the D.M.C.A. protects technology that in turn protects copyrighted material, it often protects much more broadly than copyright law does. It makes criminal what copyright law would forgive.”
So here we have MPAA suing to block people from being able to get the RealDVD program, which lets people keep a backup on their own computer in case their DVD gets scratched or lost. (Unless they pay MPAA licensing fees – wink wink, nod nod.) MPAA also wants to make people buy new DVDs. But people want to make backups in case they scratch or lose their DVDs.
This case comes to court soon, keep an eye on it.