Any American parent with kids of a certain age knows Louis Sachar’s novel Holes, and the movie made from it. It’s set somewhere in the Texas desert, at a boot camp for troublemaking kids. The kids are forced to work all day in the scorching sun, digging holes in the rock-hard ground then re-filling them. It seems utterly pointless but the grown-ups say it builds character. Eventually we learn that the holes aren’t pointless but in fact serve the interests of a few nasty grown-ups.
Speaking of holes, and pointless exercises, last month Reps. Sensenbrenner and Conyers introduced a bill, the Digital Transition Content Security Act, also known as the Analog Hole Bill.
“Analog hole” is an artfully chosen term, referring to the fact that audio and video can be readily converted back and forth between digital and analog formats. This is just a fact about the universe, but calling it a “hole” makes it sound like a problem that might possibly be solved. The last large-scale attack on the analog hole was the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) which went down in flames in 2002 after its technology was shown to be ineffective (and after SDMI famously threatened to sue researchers for analyzing the technology).
The Analog Hole Bill would mandate that any devices that can translate certain types of video signals from analog to digital form must comply with a Byzantine set of design restrictions that talk about things like “certified digital content rights protection output technologies”. Let’s put aside for now the details of the technology design being mandated; I’ll critique them in a later post. I want to write today about the bill’s exemption for “professional devices”:
PROFESSIONAL DEVICE.—(A) The termâ€˜â€˜professional device” means a device that is designed, manufactured, marketed, and intended for use by a person who regularly employs such a device for lawful business or industrial purposes, such as making, performing, displaying, distributing, or transmitting copies of audiovisual works on a commercial scale at the request of, or with the explicit permission of, the copyright owner.
(B) If a device is marketed to or is commonly purchased by persons other than those described in subparagraph (A), then such device shall not be considered to be a â€˜â€˜professional device”.
Tim Lee at Tech Liberation Front points out one problem with this exemption:
â€œProfessionalâ€ devices, you see, are exempt from the restrictions that apply to all other audiovisual products. This raises some obvious questions: is it the responsibility of a â€œprofessional deviceâ€ maker to ensure that too many â€œnon-professionalsâ€ don’t purchase their product? If a company lowers its price too much, thereby allowing too many of the riffraff to buy it, does the company become guilty of distributing a piracy device? Perhaps the government needs to start issuing â€œvideo professionalâ€ licenses so we know who’s allowed to be part of this elite class?
I think this legislative strategy is extremely revealing. Clearly, Sensenbrenner’s Hollywood allies realized that all this copy-protection nonsense could cause problems for their own employees, who obviously need the unfettered ability to create, manipulate, and convert analog and digital content. This is quite a reasonable fear: if you require all devices to recognize and respect encoded copy-protection information, you might discover that content which you have a legitimate right to access has been locked out of reach by over-zealous hardware. But rather than taking that as a hint that there’s something wrong with the whole concept of legislatively-mandated copy-protection technology, Hollywood’s lobbyists took the easy way out: they got themselves exempted from the reach of the legislation.
In fact, the professional device hole is even better for Hollywood than Tim Lee realizes. Not only will it protect Hollywood from the downside of the bill, it will also create new barriers to entry, making it harder for amateurs to create and distribute video content – and just at the moment when technology seems to be enabling high-quality amateur video distribution.
The really interesting thing about the professional device hole is that it makes one provision of the bill utterly impossible to put into practice. For those reading along at home, I’m referring to the robustness rulemaking of section 202(1), which requires the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) to establish technical requirements that (among other things) “can only with difficulty be defeated or circumvented by use of professional tools or equipment”. But there’s a small problem: professional tools are exempt from the technical requirements.
The robustness requirements, in other words, have to stop professional tools from copying content – and they have to do that, somehow, without regulating what professional tools can do. That, as they say, is a tall order.
That’s all for today, class. Here’s the homework, due next time:
(1) Table W, the most technical part of the bill, contains an error. (It’s a substantive error, not just a typo.) Explain what the error is.
(2) How would you fix the error?
(3) What can we learn from the fact that the error is still in the bill at this late date?