Chip TaylorTheir names keep coming up over and over again in courtrooms and corridors of power across the country--those groups whose interests always seem to run counter to those of technology companies and consumers. They come in many forms: associations, think tanks, money-raising organizations, PACs, and even other tech-oriented industries like telecommunications.
The tech issues that they're concerned with are what you might expect: digital rights management and fair use, patent law, broadband speed and reach, wireless spectrum and network neutrality. I talked to a good number of tech and media policy insiders in Washington, D.C.--mostly off the record--to find out who these groups are, how they operate, and who pays their bills. We'll start with the biggest offenders first and work our way down.
The Internet economy should be a boon for digital media companies and for those of us that like to buy our music and video online. It's also a very powerful way to connect with people of like mind with a view toward learning about new things to watch and listen to. Unfortunately, the content owners in the record and movie industries have mainly seen the Web as a platform for piracy, and have mainly failed to adapt their businesses to the realities of online, as one lonely industry executive recently admitted.
The record and film industries are represented in legal and policy matters by two major organizations--the RIAA and the MPAA--with some key individual companies like Warner Music Group and Disney acting on their own behalf in certain cases. The RIAA and MPAA have exercised considerable political and economic influence to push a legal and policy environment in which the content owners keep tight control of the way their content is distributed and used. "I think it's fair to say that their approach is that any innovation that they haven't signed off on is bad," says Fred von Lohmann, senior intellectual property attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Companies distributing music or video in ways the studios or labels don't approve of have quickly found themselves on the wrong end of a lawsuit. There are many examples. Perhaps most famously, the RIAA sued Napster in 1999, charging the file sharing service with "contributory" copyright infringement. After losing several major court decisions, Napster (as we knew it) folded in 2002. At around the same time the RIAA sued and shut down Michael Robertson's (MP3.com) BeamIt service, which helped users to upload and store music from their CD collections in an online locker.
Earlier this year Warner Music Group filed an infringement lawsuit against the social networking site imeem, which allowed its members to post songs on their profile pages that could be streamed by other users. San Francisco-based imeem was forced to settle out of court and now can stream only songs from labels with which it has contract agreements. All other songs run for 20 seconds and then stop.
On the video side, some major copyright infringement lawsuits against YouTube (sued by Viacom) and MySpace (sued by Universal) are still in progress. If these suits end badly, they could further restrict our access to online video and even endanger the video operations of YouTube and MySpace. Video copyright lawsuits are also in progress against the DivX Stage 6 and Veoh online services.