CES 2007: Piracy

Las Vegas is full of pirates.

From the windows of our luxurious suites at The Venetian, we can see across the strip, to Treasure Island (TI), where every once in a while they recreate some epic, if fictional, battle between some ship or another of some great global power or another power and a band of merry buccaneers. I know a thing or two about tall ships, and as far as my eye can tell, these two are pretty close to the real deal in size and structure. So, setting aside for a second the utter ridiculousness of having two life-size square-rigged sailing vessels cavorting alongside a major American thoroughfare, it’s pretty effin cool.

The show ends with a literal (for those who count these things) bang, as both ships fire off various canonry amid a shower of anachronistic pyrotechnics, and the Pirate King takes his prize up to his cabin while the merry pirate crew dances about in bikinis and Chippendale outfits to the tune of some ridiculous pop music, and the defeated whoeevers sail back down the strip to whence they came. It is, like so much in Vegas, an awesome, bizarre spectacle, but has about as much to do with actual piracy as the waitresses in the Venetian will have to do with you, and resembles piracy in the digital age in name only, sadly. I’d probably pay more for that bootleg copy of Windows Vista if it were delivered by the bikini-clad pirate lasses from TI, but I digress.

There’s one word that keep cropping up at keynotes, private conversations and cocktail hours, and that word has many permutations, but they all amount to piracy. Depending on who you are, and for whom you work, you may call the issue Digital Rights Management, Consumer Rights or Copyright Protection, but the real concern, beneath all the hype and propaganda, is how to compensate content creators fairly, while allowing end-users access to copy, save and use that content in the time and place of their choosing, while simultaneously preventing others (pirates) from reproducing and reselling the same product, which, like so many things in life, is far easier to say than to do.

The rub comes with the actual methods content creators use to control access to their content, the so-called DRM schemes, which are often software packages installed with the content in question to prevent certain forbidden actions (like copying) to occur. The most well-known of these, a product from a company called StarForce, would literally crash and render useless machines onto which it was installed, but others have been developed to protect digital rights more sedately, and perhaps less successfully as well and the battle rages on.

The CEA, the parent organization behind CES, is predictably, but admirably standing firmly behind the consumer on the issue.

“We believe the consumer should not be in jeopardy if they do something with lawfully acquired content and keep it in their home,” said Gary Shapiro, president of the CEA, in his keynote address on Monday. “Piracy is wrong, but ordinary consumers are not pirates.” The CEA has created an ad campaign and website to promote their agenda, and your rights.

Naturally there are those who disagree with him. One of them is Fritz Attaway, Executive Vice President and Special Policy Advisor for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). “I don’t think any rational person would invest millions on a product and just put it out there [unprotected],” he said, rejecting a suggestion that the consumers rights to use the content as they wish outweigh the rights of the producers to control that content. “Just like a subway has turnstiles, there should be a little something to remind people that there’s a cost.”

Attaway, speaking at a panel discussion sponsored by Cnet, butted heads with just about everyone in the room on the issue, including the CEA’s Senior Vice President of Government Affairs, Michael Petricone.

“Let’s make sure people can do the things they should be able to do,” said Petricone. “Many people are platform agnostic. It’s important that the original specs [of a DRM system] allow people to use their content in the home.”

“The problem with DRM [right now] is the technology isn’t very sophisticated,” said Attaway. “We can’t afford to lose complete control of our content. People need to be reminded what the bounds of the deal they make [with content producers] are.”

So far the bounds of those deals are that you can play the content you download on certain players, on certain machines and in some cases, for only short amounts of time. There are content providers making broader, more permissive “deals” with their consumers, and those who guard their content like they’re virginal farmers’ daughters, but the weight of titles and rhetoric being thrown at the issue at CES alone is a pretty good indicator that we’re about to see some sweeping changes in the arena of content piracy. Whether those changes will ultimately benefit you, the consumer, remains unclear, although even the MPAA acknowledges that you will reign supreme.

“At the end of the day,” said Fritz Attaway, “the consumers will rule.”


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