If copyright infringement, why not purse snatching?

by Andy Oram

I was just interviewed on CNET radio concerning the Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act (CBDTPA, originally SSSCA). I made an analogy between this proposed law that would make all "interactive digital devices" enforce copyright, and a hypothetical campaign against purse snatching.

Let's say there was a rash of thieves riding by women on bicycles or scooters and snatching purses. So the federal government passes a law saying that no transportation device may be manufactured or sold unless it incorporates protection against purse snatching.

That may sound ridiculous, because nobody knows how to design a bicycle or scooter that can foil purse snatching. But the situation is the same with computers under the CBDTPA. No secure protection scheme has yet been invented; all have been broken fairly quickly. What the CBDTPA would do is put enough barriers in the way to keep the average CD or DVD user from doing ordinary things like playing it on his computer, while not putting barriers in the way of the pirates who make a living off of copyright infringement.

It gets worse, when you consider innovation. Using my hypothetical transporation analogy, someone with a substantially new idea--such as Dean Kamen with his Segway--would have to go before a Board of people who know very little about transportation (and don't really care about it) to prove that his device couldn't be used to snatch purses. The equivalent under the CBDTPA is a vaguely defined bureaucratic institution that the entertainment industry would set up under the guidance of the FCC. Clearly, innovation would move offshore until Congress wised up.

There's nothing new about regulation and standards, and sometimes these have been burdensome in the past. But the barrier to innovation and adoption in the CBDTPA is unusually radical, and inimical to the basic purpose of the devices being regulated.