Digital content has exploded in the past ten years. DVD players are the most popular consumer electronics device of all time; CDs and MP3s have completely replaced analog formats; the internet offers unprecedented amounts of content to anyone with access to a computer.

All of this is good news for the consumer. But there is a dark side to the growing availability of digital content. Even as the amount of available digital content is increasing, our rights to use that content are being stripped away. And these changes are occurring with very little input from the citizens who will be most affected.

Hard to believe? Here are a few examples.

  • You buy a CD but can’t take it to the gym. The Audio Home Recording Act legalized our right to copy music for personal use — for example, making a tape of a CD to use in a Walkman. But new copyright legislation makes it a crime to extract music from copy-protected CDs.
  • You pay for cable but you aren’t allowed to use your VCR. In the Betamax case, the Supreme Court ruled that making a copy of a TV show was a legal, non-infringing use of broadcast content. But new HDTV standards will make it illegal to copy a digital broadcast without the permission of the TV station.
  • You buy a DVD but you can’t watch it the way you want to. It seems obvious that users should have the ability to fast-forward and rewind movies as they see fit. But new copyright laws threaten that right: it is a crime to sell a DVD player that would allow a consumer to fast-forward through the ads at the beginning of a DVD!
  • You own an electronic book, but you can’t lend it to your son at college. Your right to lend a physical book is protected by the “first sale doctrine.” This law states that purchasers of copyrighted works such as music or books have the right to dispose of the works in any way that they wish: they can sell them, loan them, rent them, or give them away. But new copyright laws criminalize all of those activities for digital content such as electronic books.

(See Q&A 1.5, 1.6 for more details.)

How did this happen? The answer is that recent changes to copyright laws have given increased power to the content industries at the expense of ordinary citizens. For most of the past 200 years, Congress and the courts maintained a careful balance between the rights of creators and the rights of citizens. Creators were given the sole right to profit from their works, but in exchange, citizens were given some degree of flexibility to use content that they owned. But over the past few years, that balance has shifted dramatically. The content industry now has unprecedented power in their ability to control the use of digital content, and consumers are left with almost no rights at all.

Beyond the domain of personal media use, the increasing power of copyright laws has the potential to impact more fundamental issues:

  • Copyright laws can be used to stifle innovation by preventing reverse engineering — the act of looking inside a product to see how it works. If today’s copyright laws were in place two decades ago, it is unlikely that the personal computer industry would exist as we know it, since the development of IBM-compatible computers depended on reverse engineering.
  • Copyright laws are being used to prevent competition by forbidding interoperability — the ability of software written by one company to work with software written by another company. If programming interfaces or protocols are protected by copyright, then competitors can no longer build compatible products.
  • Copyright laws are creating obstacles for libraries. Libraries depend on the ability to archive and loan content, but their rights have been severely limited in the digital domain.

(See Q&A 5.3, 5.5 for more details.)

We believe that recent changes to copyright law have gone too far by depriving citizens of rights that they had for almost two centuries. Our goal is simply to restore the balance of copyright law so that artists and creators can prosper while citizens have reasonable flexibility to use content in fair and legal ways.

That’s why we’re proposing a Consumer Technology Bill of Rights. The bill is a simple, positive assertion of the rights that consumers have had until recently. These include:

  • The right to “time-shift” media (recording a TV show and watching it later).
  • The right to “space-shift” media (copying a CD to a portable MP3 player).
  • The right to make backup copies of your media.

Does this mean that we support the theft of digital content? Absolutely not. Stealing music or movies is (and always has been) illegal. We do not support or condone theft. But copying and stealing are not necessarily the same thing. In certain situations, it is wrong to copy content; but in many cases, it is both legal and ethical to make unauthorized copies for fair uses. For example, recording a TV show with your VCR is unauthorized but perfectly legal.

DigitalConsumer.org is trying to restore the balance between citizens and copyright holders. For more information, please read the complete Consumer Technology Bill of Rights or our list of answers to frequently asked questions.