Linux under threat from new US copyright protection bill

30 March 2002 A controversial copyright protection bill in the US could damage the development of open source software, according to opponents of the proposed legislation.

A central plank of the bill would make it compulsory for microprocessor-powered devices to incorporate an officially approved copy protection system, intended to prevent the unauthorised copying of data – including computer code. Both software and hardware would have to incorporate the embedded copy protection technology.

The legislation is being pushed by South Carolina Senator Fritz Hollings. Called the Consumer Broadband &Digital Television Promotion (CBDTP) bill, its critics point out that its scope is even wider than the much-criticised Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

The CBDTP bill would allow a user to make a single copy of a TV programme onto a video cassette, for example, but the user would not be allowed to transfer that TV programme from the video recorder onto a laptop computer. This is because it would require making a second copy, which would be illegal, even if that recording were for personal use only.

However, the CBDTP bill would also make it illegal to sell, distribute or give away any software code that does not incorporate a copy protection system approved by US federal authorities. That would mean that ordinary home PC users could not write and give away their own programs without the embedded copy protection, even if they are not commercial applications.

More serious still, this could have a huge impact on the development of open source software. Under Hollings’ proposal, developers of open source software are deemed to be ‘sellers’, even though they may not actually sell the software.

And, quite apart from the fact that copy protection is irrelevant in the case of open source software, it will also introduce new costs.

Effective copy protection technology can be expensive to develop or purchase. If open source software developers have to pay licensing fees for using copy protection software to comply with the new law, that will defeat the purpose of open source software and deter innovation and competition, opponents of the controversial bill argue.

It is not clear whether – and how – the law would apply to computers imported from outside the US either, or how it might affect the global PC market.

For once, advocates of open source software and civil rights activists are united in opposition to the bill with the leaders of the US computer industry, including Intel, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and even software giant Microsoft.

However, the bill is backed by the powerful American media industry, including the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Both are obsessed with fighting supposedly rampant online piracy.

The MPAA and RIAA, which represent the giants of the US film and music industry, say that only a law with the ‘teeth’ of the CBDTP bill can protect them against rampant ‘Napsterization’.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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