Human Copyrights

On Feb. 28 the Senate Commerce Committee held a tempestuous hearing about Sen. Fritz Hollings's proposed Security Systems Standards and Certification Act (SSSCA). If passed, this legislation -- which the Commerce Committee has officially endorsed -- would make it illegal for companies to sell software or hardware that isn't fitted out with copy-protection technology.

Copying your CDs or another digital media (including software) for any purpose, including personal use, would become a crime. It would also represent a triumph for the entertainment industry, which has come to revile Silicon Valley's "rip, mix, burn" attitude toward digital media, as well as the free software community's challenges to traditional copyright law.

Essentially, the SSSCA challenges what many Americans consider a fundamental right to do what they want with their private property. As a result, debates about the SSSCA have included voices from every level of the techno-entertainment complex: Thousands of Slashdotters and Kuro5hinites have posted to endless threads, Disney exec Michael Eisner has delivered imperious, Luddite speeches, Intel V.P. Leslie Vadasz actually sent an e-mail flame to Hollings, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Red Hat's OpenSource:NOW: have issued action alerts.

The whole SSSCA flap reminds me of an episode of Star Trek: Voyager, which, in a bumbling, plot-holey way, manages to articulate exactly what I find chilling about both the SSSCA and the larger questions about digital-rights management. It's about copyrights and human rights. Voyager's holographic medical program, known to crew members as the Doctor, has taken on a life of his own during the course of the series. He makes bad jokes; he goes on missions; he falls in love. We all know he's just as human as everybody else in the crew.

But when the Doctor writes a holonovel about hologram liberation called Photons Be Free, his publisher insists the Doctor can't hold the copyright because he's not human. The Doctor counters that he wants to retain control over his work. One of those very Star Trekky moments ensues in which a judge must determine whether the Doctor, a hologram, qualifies as a human being. After an interminable debate almost as ridiculous as the SSSCA hearing, the judge decides that the Doctor isn't human, but that he does hold the copyright to Photons Be Free. As the episode ends, we see a crew of holograms doing slave labor in a dilithium mine. One whispers to the other that he should watch a (presumably pirated) copy of the Doctor's holonovel.

What's interesting about this science fiction scenario -- despite its crappy ST: Voyager origins -- is that it points up the degree to which copyrights have become tangled up with human rights. We know the Doctor is on his way to human status now that he holds a copyright. This bizarre scenario is not so far from reality.

People are up in arms about the SSSCA because they know it isn't just a "who gets to copy that David Cassidy CD" problem. It's a civil liberties issue. And yet the right to copy CDs is hardly on par with human rights and mobility rights, which are the kinds of things people fight for in most parts of the world. Fighting for copyrights makes me a little uncomfortable because it's as if we're redefining freedom so that human rights come down to property rights. We own, therefore we are. Nobody should take that away from us, not even Disney or News Corp.

In the eyes of the big corporations, all us little consumers and users and citizens are like the holographic medical program. They're not sure that we're really human. But they know one thing: We threaten their stranglehold on copyrights. And some of the unprotected data that we're passing around is potentially revolutionary in nature. Organic molecules be free!

But, as free software crusader Richard Stallman would ask, is that free as in free copies of a DVD or free as in freedom? Confusingly, it's both. Yeah, I want my fucking free copies of Planet of the Apes, because no self-respecting human should have to pay for it more than once. But I have lofty motives, too. I want to live in a world where corporations don't possess and regulate all the data on my computer. I believe that the SSSCA turns private property into a form of social oppression.

It's a slippery slope from depriving a person of property rights to depriving them of human rights. If distributing non-copy-protected software makes me a criminal, what comes next? What else will be taken away from me?

Annalee Newitz ( is a surly media nerd who acknowledges that Voyager sucks, but Enterprise sucks worse, OK? Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly paper.


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