You Don't Always Get What You Pay For

Dr. Dobb's Journal June 2002

When all is said and done, the legislation that started out as the "Security Systems Standards and Certification Act," then renamed as the "Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act," will likely be remembered as the "Baby (in Congress) Needs a New Pair of Shoes Act."

Introduced by Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-SC), cosigned by Ted Stevens (R-AK), Daniel Inouye (D-HI), John Breaux (D-LA), Bill Nelson (D-FL), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and funded by the TV, movie, and music industries, the CBDTPA proposes to dictate copy protection for all digital content and devices. More specifically, proposed law S.2048.IS (see prohibits the sale or distribution of electronic devices that fail to incorporate or conform to federal copy-protection standards. The standards Hollings and his gang have in mind mandate that copy-protection controls be embedded in every computer, digital media device, or "any hardware or software that...reproduces copyrighted works in digital form...or retrieves or accesses copyrighted works in digital form." This would include word processing programs, spreadsheets, operating systems, databases, communication programs, and just about every other application we use day in and day out. For programmers, this means that every program we write and distribute for sale or for free, in object- or source-code form must include government-sanctioned code. In all likelihood, the scam would work something like this: All digital content would have some kind of do-not-copy bit embedded in it, and all software and hardware would be required to recognize and act upon this bit.

Likewise, it would be illegal for you to download noncompliant programs or source code written in other countries. Violate Hollings's law for commercial purposes and you'll go to jail for five years, alongside murderers, drug dealers, energy company executives, and members of Congress who've gotten caught. You'll also pay a $500,000 fine. As a further means of aid and compensation to piracy "victims" (aka multibillion dollar TV, movie, and music companies), Hollings would grant them the right to request search warrants, impound or destroy equipment used in illegal activities, and be reimbursed for attorney's fees, lost profits, and actual damages.

In a statement justifying his Taliban-like proposals, Hollings decries the "lawlessness" of the high-tech industry and university students, saying that "piracy is growing exponentially on college campuses and among tech savvy consumers" (

Still, you have to wonder why Hollings is so het up, especially considering the state he represents isn't known as a TV, movie, or music hub. No, what appears to be revving the gang's motors is the $264,000 Hollings has accepted from the TV, movie, and music industries since 1997 (see, along with Feinstein's $214,638, Breaux's $122,920, Nelson's $59,300, Stevens's $56,370, and Inouye's $51,852. All in all, the TV/movie/music industries have showered our elected officials in Congress with more than $60 million since 1998. In return, the TV/movie/music industries get CBDTPA.

In a most disingenuous statement, Hollings puffs that "America's creative artists deserve our protection." Be clear about one thing: CBDTPA has nothing to do with protecting the rights of artists. What it is about is protecting corporate stock prices and executive bonuses the TV/movie/music industries have never shown concern about protecting the rights of artists. And then there's the always compassionate Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, who says CBDTPA will "serve the long-term interests of consumers." Right.

Curiously, Hollings's proposed law promotes open-source software: "...the security system standards shall ensure, to the extent practicable, that...any software portion of such standards is based on open-source code." Of course, this strange, but welcomed, clause doesn't absolve open-source developers who stray outside CBDTPA's guidelines from lawsuits or criminal charges. If anything, in fact, CBDTPA curtails the open-source movement because of the worldwide, distributed nature of open-source development.

Not wanting to be left off the CBDTPA bandwagon, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) announced he will introduce similar legislation in the House of Representatives. To be fair, Schiff does represent the 27th district of California, the home of studios for Disney, Warner Brothers, NBC, ABC, Nickelodeon, the Black Entertainment Television, and DreamWorks SKG. That said, you'd think that he would have done better than the measly $19,435 he got from the TV/movie/music industries. Maybe he should compare notes with his neighbor, Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), who also supports CBDTPA, but pocketed $144,541.

However, sounder minds have prevailed at least for the time being. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee that has jurisdiction over the proposal, has said he does not support CBDTPA and will prevent it from being enacted into law this year. The TV, movie, and music industries are probably kicking themselves, knowing they probably could have put to better uses the $159,230 they gave to Leahy.

Jonathan Erickson


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