My Two Cents: U.S. Copyright Laws Are Low

By Dom Serafini

It is obvious that U.S. copyright laws aren't serving the needs of the companies they intended to protect, or those of consumers. A new thinking is clearly overdue, one that satisfies both the public and copyright holders. These two needs are intertwined -- one cannot exist without the other.

How can one expect to go against consumers and still make money off of them? How can the buying public impede someone (be it a physical person or a juridical entity) whose job it is to provide protected intellectual property?

Unfortunately, even though consumers and companies have the same needs, their interests are diverging and a war is now in full swing, with the heavy artillery on the side of the copyright holders, who have the MPAA, RIAA, IRMA, SIIA and some five other industry associations to back them up. The consumer has Silicon Valley; CEA; most of the printed press (since the electronic media is in the hands of congloms); academia; and consumer advocacy groups like the Home Recording Rights Coalition.

Currently, the U.S. 1998 congressional amendment to the copyright law, which extended to 95 years the time a copyright can be held before being deemed public domain, isn't working for the consumer and the creative community. Even the U.S. Supreme Court (which upheld the law) acknowledged that the extension may be "bad policy," and, in his dissenting opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens stated that his colleagues failed to "protect the public interest." Similarly, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act seems to make everyone concerned unhappy. It even prohibits radio stations from broadcasting entire albums on their webstreams.

Traditionally, the entertainment industry has feared technology: Hollywood did so when sound came to cinema, when television arrived, when home video became popular and now it fears the Internet. The music industry feared the recordable cassette and before that the LP. Ultimately, each new technology made the entertainment industry richer than ever, and this time around with the Internet, there is no reason that it should be different.

As usual, technology not only changes the way consumers receive audiovisual products, but it can also alter the way the product is seen (e.g., the remote control, the VCR). Is this bad? Consider this: What if digital technology were used to turn an interesting movie that a viewer would see if it weren't for those objectionable scenes (or language), into a must-see movie?

Yes, global sales of recorded music dropped by 9 percent in 2002 compared to the previous year, but at the same time, the industry, in the words of The Economist, "lost sight of the need to invest in artists for the long term, and became mesmerized by overnight, overpackaged success." Plus, in the six months prior to September 2002, EMI made a post-tax profit of $208 million, after a loss of $81.8 million in the same period the previous year.

Most of the record industry losses are said to be due to rampant piracy, but the music business, which has become a semi-oligopoly, refuses to lower the prices of CDs; on the contrary, they've raised them. And when a visionary such as Warner Bros.' Warren Lieberfarb suggested lowering the price of DVDs, the company fired him.

In Europe, music copyrights are already expiring, so that previously bootlegged CDs can now legitimately enter the U.S.

It is important to point out that the consumer has to embrace a legal regime, and that the entertainment industry is scrambling to find the encryption technology that will allow it to embrace the Internet, rather than fight it. However, the industry has to remember that the customers are right even though they're not always right.

Dom Serafini