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Your Digital Rights and Why They’re Important to You

Throughout the history of technology, Hollywood has fought innovation at every turn. Even technologies that benefit the studios, and that we take for granted, exist only because someone fought the studios for their very existence. Did you know that modern broadcast radio only exists today because the government forced all record labels to license their music to broadcasters? Similarly, VCRs and MP3 players only exist because they survived Hollywood’s lawsuits.

And who has traditionally led the fight to prevent big media from crushing exciting new media technologies? It may surprise you to know that it’s typically been consumer electronics manufactures. Perhaps the most famous example resulted in the landmark Supreme Court case “Sony Vs Universal Studios” in which Sony successfully fought back misguided attempts to make the VCR illegal. It’s safe to say that if Sony hadn’t gone to the mat against the Hollywood studios back in the mid-70’s and won a surprisingly narrow 5-4 decision, your ability to time shift TV shows or watch pre-recorded videos at home would have never come to be. And, ironically enough (but also typical), Hollywood would be several billion dollars lighter in the wallet if they had won the suit because they would have subsequently lost out on the movie rental bonanza.

But who will stand up for you today if you are to continue to have the right to enjoy your legally obtained media content wherever and whenever you want?

Sad to say, it probably won’t be Sony. While they continue to be a major consumer electronics manufacturer, their acquisition of some of the world’s most powerful movie studios and record labels has apparently made them willing to sacrifice the rights of their own consumers when it potentially conflicts with their own desire to profit from selling the same content over and over. The recent rootkit fiasco -- in which Sony was forced to recall more than 20 million CD’s it sold to the public after it was discovered they contained hidden and potentially malicious spyware-type software -- is testament to that.

Meanwhile, through its iTunes Music Store, Apple has become the third-largest music retailer in the U.S. and is climbing rapidly. The iTunes Music Store has also been selling a limited selection of low-resolution television shows available for download at $2 a pop, and Apple continues to seek deals with other major video content providers to broaden the selection. Taken by itself, this service is a good thing because it provides one more option for consumers to obtain video content for portable media and other players. The problem comes when Big Media tries to devise ways to make a few such services or technologies the only game in town.

As described in an article on boingboing.net, a new proposed "Analog Hole" bill which the RIAA has submitted to congress would make it, “illegal to make anything capable of digitizing video unless it either has all its outputs approved by the Hollywood studios, or is closed-source, proprietary and tamper-resistant. The idea is to make it impossible to create an MPEG from a video signal unless Hollywood approves it.” The article goes on to say that: “ If this had been around in 1976, the VCR would have been illegal. Today, it would ban Mythtv, every tuner-card in the market, and boxes like Elgato's eyeTV the Slingbox and the Orb and the vPod. This is a proposal to turn huge classes of technology into something that exists only at the sufferance of the studios.”

While such legislation is being pushed by the MPAA and the RIAA, companies like Apple and Sony would stand to benefit from it because consumers wishing to transfer legally owned television shows and other video content to handhelds would no longer have the option of recording it and would have little choice but to purchase it a second time from sites like iTunes Music Store. The more such legislation gets passed, the less innovation consumers will see, and the fewer options you will have for enjoying your content.

Make no mistake, stealing content is wrong, but, unfortunately, these new legislative initiatives aren’t about preventing piracy. Why would pirates care about laws that criminalize recordings from analog outputs when they’re already breaking laws that prohibit stealing higher quality digital content? Instead, these proposed laws are about Big Media using piracy as an excuse to take away your right to control your own legally obtained content and thereby open up new revenue streams by forcing you to pay multiple times for the same content.

So, what can you do to protect your digital rights? First, make your own voice heard and take every opportunity to educate others about the efforts underfoot to take away your rights. Get on the forums, write letters to the editor, etc. Second, let your Congressperson and Senator know that you are a voter and that you support consumers’ rights to control their own legally obtained content. Third, vote twice: once at the polls and once with your pocketbook. Elect public officials that support digital rights preservation for consumers and purchase products that empower you to control your own content while avoiding those that don’t. Finally, support advocacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation that are working to defend your digital rights.

There are two opposing forces at odds here. On the one hand, there are exciting new technologies that offer more and more choices for consumers to access and enjoy digital media when and where they want it. On the other, there is Big Media and a few of its powerful allies working behind the scenes to limit consumer choices to when and where they want it. How this all plays out will depend on how the rest of us respond in the coming days, weeks and months.

If we work together and make our voices heard, your right to choose will once again prevail. And, if the history of the VCR and radio broadcast is any judge, even Big Media will once again be glad it did.