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Mad About Copyrights
SAN FRANCISCO (The Industry Standard) - As people in the business of creating copyrighted material, we're not especially supportive of the increasingly popular notion that the Internet has rendered copyrights unenforceable and therefore obsolete. We put a lot of time, energy and money into creating our magazine and our Web site, and it seems self-evident that others should not have the right to copy them without our permission.

Still, we find it difficult to work up much sympathy for the entertainment industry, which is charging forth with legal guns blazing in its efforts to stamp out widespread copying of music and movies. The music companies and movie studios and the trade groups that represent them certainly have some legitimate complaints and fears. But scorched-earth legal strategies are not the way to win this fight -- especially for an industry with such a poor track record in adopting new technologies and serving customers.

Consider the situation of the major record labels. They're apoplectic over the spread of illegally copied MP3 music files, and they're confident that the law, bolstered by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, is on their side. Indeed, federal judges have recently handed the recording industry major victories in two cases: one against a music-storage service operated by, and another against the music-sharing system called Napster. The record companies hope that a combination of heavy legal artillery and new encryption systems will enable them to maintain something akin to the status quo.

At the same time, though, those very record companies were in the midst of settling Federal Trade Commission antitrust charges that they illegally fixed prices for CDs. And they have yet to produce any products that would satisfy the obvious desire of their customers to trade music over the Internet. Their approach to the piracy problem -- all stick and no carrot -- has no chance of succeeding in the long run.

All copyright-enforcement schemes ultimately depend on at least a minimum of voluntary compliance, and antagonizing your most important customers is a good way to assure that won't happen. Artists like Metallica and Dr. Dre, who preach anti-establishment ideology in their music but have been on the front lines of the legal war against MP3, would do well to heed that truism, too. Give people a big incentive to violate the law, and they will find a way to do it.

The movie industry doesn't yet have quite the same issues, primarily because bandwidth limitations make copying and trading films impractical. But the major studios -- which today enjoy massive revenues from videocassettes only because the courts ignored their efforts to ban the technology -- are determined to get out in front of the problem. They've sued Web sites carrying a Linux software program that plays encrypted DVD movies, and having won an early round in court, are now trying to bar the sites from linking to any site that houses the program.

Again, the industry is trying to stop something that its customers want to do, instead of enabling it. Worse, it's trying to set a precedent that would have disastrous implications for free speech. In the long run, a legal regime that stamps out the longstanding concept of ``fair use'' of copyrighted material, and forces customers to break the law to do routine things that everyone wants to do, will be a disaster for all copyright creators.

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