A new US copyright Bill would make it illegal to use any computer system that does not have government-approved anti-piracy technology. Some experts believe that far from controlling digital copyright infringement, such a law would spawn a huge black-market in piracy.
The Security System Standards and Certification Act (SSSCA) is currently only a draft but could be turned into a bill by the end of 2001. It would control the manufacture and use of any device capable of storing digital data. This includes all computer systems and any digital entertainment device such as a DVD or MP3 player.
The bill would require digital devices to be fitted with government-approved technology to stop users making unauthorised copies of protected music, video or text. Anyone found guilty of disabling the technology would face hefty fines and even a jail sentence.
But some experts believe the idea could backfire. "It's a bit like prohibition," says Richard Clayton of Cambridge University's Computer Science Laboratory. "If they went ahead and passed it, it would create a large pirate market for things that will play stuff they shouldn't."
Others say that the bill would also restrict computer science research by preventing students from designing and building basic computer systems. "Are you going to shut down every computer science department in the country?" asks Ian Brown, of the University College London. "Because that is what it would take."
This is not the first piece of legislation to tackle digital copyright infringement. The US Digital Millennium Copyright Act, passed in 1998, already makes it a crime to disable copy protection technology that comes with a product.
A Russian computer programmer faces prosecution under the Act for disabling the mechanism protecting some electronic books.
There are currently few technical impediments to copying music or video held in digital format. Internet file-sharing technologies such as Napster and Gnutella also make it very simple to distribute illicit copies of digital files.
Although the new bill is likely to face huge opposition from computer users, Brown says that the movie and music industry will be very keen for to see it passed. And should the law go through in the US, there will be pressure for it to be passed in Europe too, he says.
The draft bill was prepared by Democratic Senator Fritz Hollings of South Carolina, who is chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, an influential group within the senate.