Earlier this month the popular website Digg.com was embroiled in a controversy. On one hand, they received threatening letters from lawyers at the Advanced Access Content System (AACS) demanding they remove content. On the other hand were the users of Digg, incensed at this "censorship". The battle became so intense that Digg was shut down briefly.
Digg is a popular social networking site that allows users to submit interesting web pages for inspection. Other users then vote (called "diggs") to promote the web page or bury it. The posts with the most diggs are shown on the front page and rewarded with a great deal of traffic. In just a couple of years, it has become one of the most popular sites on the internet.
In the end, Digg.com chose its users. Founder Kevin Rose said, "You've made it clear. You'd rather see Digg go down fighting than bow down to a bigger company." Time will tell if the AACS makes good on their threat and files a lawsuit. Such a lawsuit would follow on the tails of YouTube-Viacom lawsuit also over copyright protections. Denizens of the internet are paying close attention to the outcome.
Skirmishes over online copyrights stem from a 1998 US law, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Amongst other things, the DMCA makes carriers and internet service providers liable for the copyright violations of their users to an extent. This creates a form of vicarious liability where a third-party is legally responsible for the actions of another. The law is also dramatically unpopular with the technophiles who drive the next generation of web services dubbed Web 2.0.
In the end, Digg.com chose its users. Founder Kevin Rose said, "You've made it clear. You'd rather see Digg go down fighting than bow down to a bigger company."
The specific content that AACS was trying to stifle was the HD-DVD encryption key. This key (known since December) would allow people to crack the copy-protection on HD-DVD. This would allow people to create bootleg DVDs. Most technophiles think Digital Rights Management (DRM) schemes like copy-protection also prevent legitimate duplication (such as making backups) and strongly disagree with attempts to foist the technology on consumers. The result is that the audienceDigg caters to is the most likely to use or support the use of the HD-DVD key for duplication of movies.
The Internet makes it very difficult to go after every user who puts up protected material, especially when so many people can do it simultaneously all over the world. With about 27 million Americans trading music and movies, there are simply too many to go after. The DMCA was written specifically to stop that by making it possible to go after carriers. These are far fewer and have financial reasons to not fight someone else's fights.
However, that hasn't stopped the trading of music or movies online. People want to trade music and movies and they'll frequent sites that let them do so. If sites stop letting them do it, they simply move on to the next service. When sites are purely designed to be user-generated content (such asDigg or YouTube) the problem becomes much more acute. In the case of Digg, users kept resubmitting the HD-DVD key despite Digg's attempts to keep it off. When Digg took more aggressive steps, the users revolted. YouTube has constant difficulty with people uploading copyrighted videos. The ongoing Viacom dispute has a team of people watching every movie uploaded toYouTube and sending messages to YouTube where a team waits to delete those same videos. The general counsel for NBC, Rick Cotton, has said that "It's frustrating… and completeinadequate" that YouTube isn't using filtering technology.
The core problem is that owners of music and movies have been slow to adapt to new technology and in many cases been hostile toward it. It hasn't been until recently that TV shows were available online yet there was a huge unmet demand. File sharing was meeting that need. Music and movie makers have been even harder to deal with restricting even the copying of their material even in cases where it is technically legal. Many have consistently reacted to new multimedia technology with fear that it would be used to cut into their profit margins.
Consumers have simply turned to bypassing those restrictions by going online. Originally, consumers would have to go to special chat rooms to get pirated movies and music. Then came along peer-to-peer software such as Napster, Kazaa and BitTorrent. YouTube, Digg and other sites have become the latest battleground for consumers trying to share and consumer media around the onerous restrictions of the media companies.
In the end, the use of the DMCA against social-networking sites will settle into some sort of balance. Some TV networks have moved to place their shows online so viewers can watch them whenever they like. They still include some commercials, but the piracy of these shows has declined because there is little need or demand for alternative outlets.
Previously ISPs fought with copyright holders until a balance was struck there as well. However, as technology advances, it's clear that it will advance faster than music and movie makers are willing to go. The clear solution is for media companies to adapt newtechnologies so they can continue to make money (as iTunes has done for music online). Until they catch up, people will be using the internet to bypass them.