published Friday, July 30th, 2010

Betamax, Napster good examples of content battles


by Donnie Jenkins

I’m basing this week’s article on a recent and excellent story on zdnet.com by David Gewirtz.

There has been for some time a sort of battle going on between two opposite camps in the tech world. On one side are content owners, businesses that produce books, movies, music and video games. On the other side we find consumers of these various types of content.

You would think these two groups would appreciate and complement each other, but no. There is a battle between businesses who want to control how their content is distributed and consumers who want to receive content in the way and at the time they choose. There are two famous examples of the clash between these two:

The first occurred in the late 1970s when the Sony Betamax VCR became popular. For the first time it became possible to use “time shifting” in viewing movies and TV shows, something we take for granted now. Several movie studios sued Sony and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in Sony’s favor.

This case gave rise to the discussion of just what is fair use of copyrighted content by someone who purchases it, a discussion that is still hot and heavy today. More on this in a moment.

The second example of this conflict was the advent of the file-sharing service Napster beginning in 1999. Napster showed how much people wanted to find music that record labels deemed out of date and without value. It also demonstrated that listeners would love any service that made it easy to find whatever they were looking for at the time. Finally, and unfortunately, it also showed that people loved not having to pay for music, being able to download it at will.

The record industry representative RIAA was not happy about this and eventually sued Napster out of existence. RIAA was equally unhappy when several new and similar services immediately came into being. The genie was out of the bottle, so to speak.

The copyright statute that governs what is fair use is called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act or DMCA. It is routinely blasted by consumers’ rights groups as too restrictive and, some would say, draconian. It criminalizes some use that these groups believe should be allowed routinely.

As you can imagine, the copyright owners hold a different view, one that says they must be allowed to protect works in which they have invested time and money.

One interesting part of this law is that some aspects of it are to be reviewed every three years. This week saw such a review on behalf of the Electronic Frontier Foundation or EFF with amazing results. While I don’t have the ability to describe all the changes here, one in particular is central to our discussion.

It is now legal to extract or “rip” limited contents from a DVD you buy and use parts of it in YouTube videos as long as it is not used for profit. This is good news and the creative YouTube users I spoke of last week can only benefit from this. I look forward to more of their efforts, but you can be sure that the content companies will be heard on this subject, too.

E-mail Donnie Jenkins at donniejenkins@yahoo.com.

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