If music be the food of law

I just drove from my home (north of Los Angeles) to Las Vegas, a pleasant five-and-a-half-hour jaunt. It was great - I loaded up the CD cartridge, packed it into the car, cranked up the volume and rocked out, baby.

My selections included a CD I purchased ("Tales of the Inexpressible" by Shpongle - one of the best CDs of 2001) and several I created. The content for the latter I downloaded - no, not from Napster, Grokster or any of that ilk.

Last year I subscribed to Emusic.com Inc., and it frankly changed my life. I am a music addict and I used to spend a fortune on CDs. The problem was that much of the money I spent was wasted. All too frequently I'd hear a track or two from some album, go and buy it and then find that the rest of the album was far less engaging.

Then I found emusic.com! Emusic has several subscription plans and I chose the US$9.95-per-month version that lets me download as many MP3s as I please. And what a selection there is! My collection of jazz and big band has exploded, I'm drowning in classics and my drum and bass, jungle, ambient and hip hop holdings are staggering.

So, in preparation for my journey I burned a half-dozen CDs and, as I said, off I roared.

Now, if the Broadcast Protection Discussion Group (BPDG) has its way, downloading music could become far more complex or even forbidden. The BPDG is a subgroup of the Copy Protection Technical Working Group, a subgroup of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Whew.

The objective of the BPDG is to define what features must and must not be included in digital playback devices (TVs, audio players and so on) as part of a "standard." To this end they have invited all of the major technology vendors to join in and most worryingly, this insane idea is to be enforced by law!

Yep, you read that right. Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) has tried since last year to sneak a bill into existence called the Security Systems Standards and Certification Act (SSSCA), which would require that any "digital media technology" be controlled to the extent that approval would be required to introduce digital media technologies in professional and consumer equipment.

So far, Intel Corp. and Koninklijke Phillips NV have spoken out against the SSSCA and its bastard revision, Hollings' Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act, but the battle has probably not even begun.

The problem is that Hollywood as represented by the MPAA just doesn't get it: It doesn't matter what laws are passed, digital content cannot be controlled by its creator once it is let loose in the world. Sure, we can create laws that mandate technologies to be used in equipment maintain copyright but we all know how long it will take before someone figures out a hack.

But in all this wild posturing and positioning, these ideas will have an effect far greater than stopping a few CDs or DVDs from being copied. They will create a violent assault on free speech, including academic work (remember Professor Felten, who successfully hacked the bSecure Digital Music Initiative's "Public Challenge" and was legally prevented from publishing his results), hobble technological progress, and make consumer and professional products more complex, more expensive and less useful.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (www.eff.org) has lots of background and news on these issues and we should all get behind the EFF and make our voices heard before this stupidity gets more momentum. The sheer irrationality of these ideas is frightening and should they get any traction in the real world it will set an appalling precedent for all sorts of controls over the IT industry.

And worst of all, it could make my drive to Las Vegas much less enjoyable.

Secure or insecure music recommendations to back spin@gibbs.com.

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Mark Gibbs

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