May 30, 2024

Archives for October 2002

A Bad Idea Whose Time Has Come?

On Monday I attended a workshop to discuss compulsory licensing of music. A compulsory license might work like this: a small “tax” is added to the cost of Internet connections and/or computers and/or electronic devices that record and play music. In exchange for paying this tax, everybody gets free access to all the music they want, with no limits on sharing or redistribution. (Napster becomes legal.) The tax revenue is split up among musicians, songwriters, etc., based on how often each piece of music is played (as determined by statistical sampling). The average person would end up paying about $5 a month. (At present, there are no serious compulsory licensing proposals on the table, only a few trial balloons.)

There are plenty of reasons to dislike this proposal. It’s a non-market approach, based on a tax-and-redistribute model. It makes the price of music a political issue, rather than something to be worked out consensually between buyers and sellers. And a politically viable version of it would necessarily lock in much of the economic inefficiency in today’s music business.

Despite all this, compulsory licensing may be a bad idea whose time has come. The conventional wisdom is that compulsory licenses only make sense in markets that are disfunctional; and there is strong evidence of disfunction in the market for music today. Too many customers get their music illegally and refuse to pay; almost all artists are dirt-poor, and even the rich ones tend to see the system as unfair; and the greatest music distribution vehicle ever invented – the Internet – is vastly underexploited. Everybody in the business feels hemmed in and threatened. By all rights, this ought to be the best time in history to be a musician, a songwriter, or a music fan; but the reality is not so grand.

I’m conflicted about this. Philosophically and politically, I find compulsory licensing hard to stomach. And yet I have a nagging suspicion that it’s the only way out of the mess we’re in.

Fritz's Hit List #22

Today on Fritz’s Hit List: the Athena Mars Exploration Rovers.

These machines, which are designed to explore the surface of the planet Mars, record and transmit digital video and images, so they qualify for regulation as “digital media devices” under the Hollings CBDTPA. If the CBDTPA passes, any newly manufactured Mars Rovers will have to incorporate government-approved copy restriction technology.

Fight piracy – regulate Mars Rovers!

[Thanks to Dan Maas for suggesting this item.]

NYT Article on Fritz's Hit List

Today’s New York Times has an article (on page 3 of the Business section), by David F. Gallagher, about Fritz’s Hit List. I love the title: “Robotic Dogs and Singing Fish in Cross Hairs.”

The article includes the first on-the-record response I’ve seen from Sen. Hollings’ office:

Andy Davis, a spokesman for Mr. Hollings, said the technology-minded critics of the bill were “missing the thrust of the senator’s argument,” which is that there is need for more protection of copyright works if online content and broadband Internet access are to flourish. Besides, Mr. Davis said, many details of the legislation remain to be worked out.

Fritz's Hit List #21

Today on Fritz’s Hit List: digital sewing machines.

These machines replay digitally prerecorded stitch sequences to make complex pictures and patterns, so they qualify for regulation as “digital media devices” under the Hollings CBDTPA. If the CBDTPA passes, any newly manufactured digital sewing machines will have to incorporate government-approved copy restriction technology.

Fight piracy – regulate sewing machines!

[Thanks to Rich Brown for suggesting this item.]

Paper on Copy-Protected CDs

Alex Halderman, a senior here at Princeton, has written a very interesting paper entitled “Evaluating New Copy-Prevention Techniques for Audio CDs.” Here is the paper’s abstract:

Several major record labels are adopting a new family of copy-prevention techniques intended to limit “casual” copying by compact disc owners using their personal computers. These employ deliberate data errors introduced into discs during manufacturing to cause incompatibility with PCs without affecting ordinary CD players. We examine three such recordings: A Tribute to Jim Reeves by Charley Pride, A New Day Has Come by Celine Dion, and More Music from The Fast and the Furious by various artists. In tests with different CD-ROM drives, operating systems, and playback software, we find these discs are unreadable in most widely-used applications today. We analyze the specific technical differences between the modified recordings and standard audio CDs, and we consider repairs to hardware and software that would restore compatibility. We conclude that these schemes are harmful to legitimate CD owners and will not reduce illegal copying in the long term, so the music industry should reconsider their deployment.

The paper will appear in the proceedings of the ACM’s DRM Workshop. It’s currently available, but only in PostScript format, on the Workshop’s site. (It’s available in PDF format here.)

It’s rare to see a workshop like this accept a single-author paper written by an undergraduate; but this paper is really good. (Grad schools: you want this guy!)