Balancing rights at both ends of the pipe

Copyright protection is a contentious subject, complicated by the proliferation of digital content and the media to transmit, copy and play it. The task of balancing the rights of creators and users of that content, establishing the responsibilities of network operators and defining the role of government in enforcing copyrights is far from complete, as a panel of experts and advocates demonstrated Wednesday.

Opposing lines were drawn quickly during the discussion at the State of the Net conference hosted in Washington by the Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee.

'Piracy is devastating the industry,' said Cary Sherman, president of the Recording Industry Association of America, which has been aggressively pursuing music downloaders in court.

Sherman said his industry has adapted to new media by making music available through legal downloading sites, and advocating network filtering technology that would identify and block illegal transfers of protected material. It is not a perfect technology, 'but it has a lot of advantages,' Sherman said.

Gigi Sohn, president of the consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, strongly disagreed.

'It is not only a bad business practice, but it is bad policy,' Sohn said. Filtering ignores legitimate use, won't stop determined pirates and degrades network performance, she said. She advocated new business models, such as licensing agreements between Internet service providers and content providers that would provide payment to copyright holders for material downloaded by subscribers, regardless of the source.

For the time being, none of the sides are advocating that the government require network operators to police the content of their networks. Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.), recently remarried widow of recording artist Sonny Bono, is an advocate of strong copyright protection. Her approach to policing is to blame the protocol. Most online piracy is done over peer-to-peer networks, which are bandwidth hogs, Bono said. Let the networks choke off P-2-P traffic and they will stop piracy, she said.

No one seemed to take that approach seriously. YouTube, which hosts user-generated content, has been using content identification tools since 2005 to let users manage their own material, and has recently released a beta version of a video identification tool that could help identify copyrighted material on the site.

YouTube product counsel Mia Garlick said the solution to protecting rights of creators and users is to 'focus on what technology is good at.' That is identifying files, she said. What it is not good at is making judgments about the legitimacy of those files or their use. That requires human policy and decision making, and a dispute resolution process.

For Greg Jackson, chief information officer at the University of Chicago, policing the activity of his network's users is a matter of dollars and cents. He said his department spends from $100,000 to $200,000 a year responding to complaints of illegal file sharing from RIAA and other organizations. That is money he would rather spend elsewhere, but it is not an unreasonable amount, Jackson said.

But a legal requirement that he filter and control content on his network is another matter. That would require him to put software on some 3,000 network devices passing traffic, at a potential cost far above that of responding to RIAA complaints. 'That is a very difficult problem,' he said. A site license with the university to pay for content could well be a more cost-effective solution.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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