Slashdot's received a lot of submissions about RIAA actions recently, and the actions of colleges taken after the RIAA sent them nasty letters. One of the interesting things about this is that the RIAA is apparently not listing any specific offenders, just sending general warnings to any and all colleges with computer networks. Under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, copyright holders acquired several new rights, with the promise they wouldn't abuse them. They're abusing them. (More...)
A good example is a demand letter to a Swiss university, ETH Zurich, which demands that the school immediately terminate all web pages with illegal MP3 files (illegal is of course a judicial decision; the letter presumes that all MP3s are illegal); that the school provide names and home addresses of all students with MP3 files hosted on the school's servers; that the school provide the date that those MP3 files were first hosted (for every MP3 on every server); and that the school provide the IP address for every machine anywhere on the internet which downloaded a MP3 file from the school's servers.
The letter closes with a carrot: we'll adjust our monetary demands based on how well you comply with this letter. Better hope your IP address doesn't appear too many times in those web server logs.
We can probably assume that the demands to U.S. schools are much the same - far-reaching, extortionate letters which are not specific about any particular infringement alleged to be occurring, but which are intended nonetheless to scare the universities into cracking down on their students. The terms of the compromise of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act were that the RIAA and related groups would do the policing of their copyrights - if they found a specific file that they alleged was unlawfully infringing, they have a procedure to follow, specific information to provide about the specific infringing file, and the ISP (college or whatever) is supposed to "do their part" by deleting/removing said file if the paperwork is correct. ISPs and colleges are not supposed to do the grunt work themselves - that results in the kind of overbroad crackdowns that we've seen. This was the subject of specific negotiations during the process of creating this law.
But the RIAA, of course, would prefer that schools and ISPs do their cracking down for them. So they send these general scare letters, hoping to trigger a reaction.
Scare tactics work. Universities scan through student computers, trying passwords on protected directories. The new Rio players will incorporate all of the RIAA's desired protections against copying of MP3 files - the price of settling the RIAA's lawsuit. The next target is Napster.
RIAA will now be filing suit against Napster, an application which effectively functions like a single purpose IRC server, connecting people who want to share MP3 files, whether legally or not. (There's a linux port of Napster; better download it quick.) Some schools, like Oregon State University, are so scared they're blocking all access to Napster servers from school systems. In the ideal world, Napster should probably win - the RIAA could monitor their servers and demand that infringing users be eliminated, but the service equally provides people with an avenue to share legal MP3 files, and this significant non-infringing use is all that is needed under copyright law. The article I just linked to and a nice Wired story both show Napster feebly trying to insist on their duties under the DMCA, saying that the RIAA needs to tell them in writing about specific instances of infringement - but the RIAA doesn't care about the law.
Napster, of course, has no money to fight a lawsuit. This is exactly what happened to the Rio: they won in court, but since the RIAA planned to appeal the suit and drain more money out of Diamond Multimedia, they settled by promising that future Rio's would include the RIAA's copyright protections. Like the Dentist's extortion tactics in Cryptonomicon, RIAA lawsuits are equally powerful whether they are on solid legal grounds or not - Napster will lose this suit, whether they win or lose, because the RIAA can afford the money to fight it and Napster cannot. So presumably Napster and RIAA will come to some agreement, settle the lawsuit, and Napster's next generation will incorporate the RIAA's demanded copyright protection system.
Just remember, RIAA CEO Hilary Rosen says she loves the idea of Napster to build communities, "but not on the backs of huge mega-corporations with billions of dollars of revenue quarterly."
The RIAA is hardly the only abuser. The Business Software Alliance, essentially a front group for protecting Microsoft's copyrights, does similar things with regard to "pirated" software. (What a PR genius it was who thought of describing all copying of software as piracy! Probably the same person behind the "cyber-squatter" label for anyone who owns a domain that a company covets.) The BSA is now raiding homes of people accused of copying software.
The idea behind copyright is to expand the amount of information available to the public by creating a government-mandated monopoly on reproducing it - for a limited time (28 years maximum, at the beginning - today the maximum copyright term could be over 150 years). Copyright has always has the inherent give-back to society - the work would pass out of protection, and then anyone could copy it and use it as they saw fit. But copyright is now essentially unlimited - over the last twenty years, the length of the copyright period has increased by forty years, so that essentially no materials produced since World War I have entered the public domain. In about 15-18 years, copyright holders will again be petitioning Congress to extend the copyright term, so that entities like Mickey Mouse never enter the public domain. The extension is now being challenged as unconstitutional, but the challengers lost in District Court and it's far from certain that this suit can succeed.
In today's world, it's customary to speak of copyright as some sort of innate right. It isn't. It's there for the betterment of society, but its functioning, today, contributes nothing to society - all it is is a government-sanctioned monopoly transferring money from your pocket to others, with nothing ever given back - and no possibility of give-backs until 2019, under current law.
We need to rethink copyright. It's not a fundamental right of corporations to receive a 95-year government monopoly. Businesses plan on a five-year cycle - if something isn't forecast to make a return on investment in five years, it doesn't get done. A five-year grant of copyright to corporate authors would serve just as well in promoting the development of new material, and would bring a tremendous amount of material into the public domain, which is copyright's true intent. With a much smaller amount of material actually under copyright, enforcement of it would be far simpler and more straightforward.
But naturally this would cost certain companies a lot of money - they're used to wallowing in their government-granted monopoly. Disney has made back their costs for creating Mickey Mouse billions of times over, but they're used to the cash flow now and would be willing to buy an entire Congress to protect it. The Digital Millenium Copyright Act was passed with the aid of a great deal of subterfuge, but most importantly, a great deal of campaign contributions. Now you can be a criminal not just for actually copying anything, but for making a "device" (hardware or software) which facilitates copying - we're talking five years in Federal prison. Imagine doing five years in Federal prison so that Congress can protect their campaign donations, errr, I mean, Disney's cash flow.
We're extremely close to the day when debuggers are illegal. Through threats, strategic campaign donations, and outright extortion practiced on upstart companies, copyright-holders like the RIAA are building copyright protection into the very infrastructure of computing.
Making changes in this system requires a fundamental commitment from the U.S. populace that it be changed. The commitment doesn't exist yet, but as more and more people experience the power of copyright to affect what they can and cannot publish online, and the abuses of the companies dedicated to protecting copyright beyond the terms of the increasingly-protective law, perhaps it will in the future.
Some slashdot readers will no doubt say, "Open source, you idiot!" Open source is a reaction to these problems, not a solution to them. Despite the open source phenomenon, the trend is toward more and more works being locked up, and locked up permanently, behind laws and cryptographic protocols. It shouldn't have to be a war between words, pictures and code that is always free to use and words, pictures and code that is locked up for all eternity - we should demand that the social contract envisioned in the Constitution be fulfilled by forcing copyright holders to give back to society, whether they want to or not.
-- Michael Sims
 Gratuitous Cryptonomicon reference provided free of charge.
 Quote may not reflect Rosen's exact words, but does reflect her intent.