A modest proposal for the DMCA

(Standard disclaimer: I am not a lawyer.)

A few days ago, I was contemplating the legality of copying a DVD movie to an iPod. In most cases, this violates two US laws: breaking the copy protection violates the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA), while making the copy violates copyright laws. In response, many people argue that the fair use principle allows people to make personal, noncommercial copies.

Unfortunately, this is a battle where no one is winning. The content producers claim that they are losing a huge sum of money due to illegal copying of their material, while the average consumer feels cheated when they have to purchase a new copy of the movie or music for each new audio or video format. Put another way, the content producers want to be paid for what they use, while the average consumer feels that they should pay once and get to use the content in a reasonable way.

The current solution is that most video and audio files are now copy protected so that you cannot use them on any device. This isn’t stemming widespread piracy of content, while it is a nuisance for the average consumer.

Then I realized that there could be a better way. Make it easy to track when people illegally share copyrighted material, while not punishing people who want to use their own material on various audio-video equipment.

Let me explain. Suppose that every piece of software that allows you to copy a video or audio file would embed a watermark. This watermark would identify you as the person who copied the file. If you share the files illegally, you would be prosecuted. But the material would not be copy protected, so you would be free to copy the audio or video material to any computer, video or audio device in your household.

So what about enforcement? That’s easy, too. It would be easy to legislate that every piece of copying software must contain the watermarking system. Through the legal system, the government could easily stop anyone from selling or distributing software that does not include a standard watermark system. Similarly, the government could make it illegal to produce software that removes the watermark from these files. Finally, it would be easy to monitor any file sharing system to track down people who illegally share files.

With this, you can track down the real criminals who are distributing illegal copies. And you don’t punish people who have paid for content. It’s not difficult.

Is there anyone in government who could actually make this happen?

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