Don's diary: A fight for whose rights?

October 4, 2002

Off to the US with a team assembled by the Publishers Association to assess the effectiveness of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which allows companies and individuals to serve "notices of infringement" on internet service providers that require them to remove offending websites - usually those offering pirated software.

Why me? I know a lot about science fiction and the SF community - a group vociferous about the freedom of information and with the skills to get it out there. Most pirated e-books are science fiction.

10am: Meet with senior attorney at the US Customs Service, Intellectual Property Rights Division, Washington DC. They are worried after 9/11. Terrorist groups produce and sell pirated DVDs, CDs and books to launder money.

Second meeting is with C3, the Cyber Crimes Unit: despite sexy name, they mainly dismantle computers to find pirated material. Operation Buccaneer (2001) confiscated 15 terabytes of data.

Lastly, visit the National IPR Coordination Centre. We are shown a video reminding us that US jobs are at stake as pirated goods are made abroad, and that lost tax revenue could have been spent on defence. There are two Quakers in the team.

The American Publishers Association claims there is no demand for e-books but the illegal market is huge. And yes, most of it is SF, often scanned (no longer passed out on websites since the DMCA takedown notices) in "peer-to-peer" swaps on usenet. Their marketing problem is finding an acceptable "value-added" format for e-books: I suggest that all most readers want is a text. Fancy graphics are not all that desirable on a small PDA screen, but I coo when shown the new e-book of Neil Gaiman's Coraline .

At the British Embassy reception my SF credentials are useful: a surprising number of diplomats and lawyers read SF.

Visit Register of Copyrights at the Library of Congress. How does one save electronic data without having to preserve the hardware it runs on? The other issue is how to deal with mass photocopying in universities. Here I disagree radically with my colleagues, who all hate the idea of a machine tax.

Microsoft, Seattle. In "The House of the Future" one can copy CDs onto the house entertainment system. This sums up the industry. For every system they create to prevent copyright theft, they provide inducements to indulge in it.

San Jose: working lunch at Adobe. eBay's lawyer tells us that they respond to all takedown notices within 24 hours and terminate the accounts of frequent offenders. Yahoo takes down the offending website and cuts off email and access to the server. Everyone we have seen claims that the two or three protests each year against these actions prove the system works and is fair. I am not convinced. Would you want to argue with Time Warner's copyright lawyers?

Yahoo introduces us to the Sony games lawyer, who says the country codes on games and DVDs that fuel the illegal market are there because these products are culture specific. Do we really need to be protected from Japanese movies?

Friday night
By pure chance we complete our itinerary in San Jose where, this weekend, the World SF Convention is being held. Set up meeting with Electronic Frontier Foundation. It goes very well - these people are writers, as keen to collect their own royalties as anyone else.

One thing is clear. The two or three complaints about takedown each year are the tip of the iceberg. The DMCA is being used to take down fan sites. The fan community feels bullied and a test case may be on the horizon.

Farah Mendlesohn is senior lecturer in American studies, Middlesex University, and chairman of the Science Fiction Foundation.

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