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The copyright fight gets dirty

Record companies are discovering new ways to stop file-sharing, and those who advocate civil liberties are trying to stop them. How far will the recording industry go in the name of copyright protection?

How much is too much when it comes to record companies protecting their copyrights? That question is getting closer to being answered as labels seek more and more intrusive ways to stop file-sharing, and parties concerned with civil liberties try to stop them.

Record companies are looking into a number of those ways, many of which are on shaky ethical, if not legal, ground. Some labels have already deployed spoof files (which masquerade as music files but contain either nothing at all, or something other than the song being sought) onto peer-to-peer networks, but they’ve had little effect.

Other tactics being tested include so-called Trojan horse files, which simply redirect file traders to sites where they can purchase music, and freeze files, which temporarily lock up a file trader’s computer. Another kind of program is designed to look through a file trader’s hard drive for copyrighted music and delete any such files it finds. All five of the major record labels are reportedly involved in developing counterpiracy measures.

The most notorious spoof track so far greeted Madonna fans who tried to download her new single, “American Life.” Instead of the song, they got a recorded greeting from the artist herself: “What the (expletive) do you think you’re doing?” As a way to stop distribution of the song, the tactic’s effectiveness was debatable, but the net result was predictable: Within days after the spoof track began circulating, her admonition was all over the Web as a sound bite used mockingly in dozens of remix tracks. How such a savvy operator as Madonna didn’t anticipate this kind of comeuppance is hard to say.

The joke was on Madonna in this case, but the potential results of allowing corporations to invade people’s homes are no laughing matter. Congressman Howard L. Berman’s (D-Calif.) Peer-to-Peer Piracy Prevention Act would provide immunity to copyright owners who use technology to disable or otherwise interfere with file trading–in other words, it would sanction malicious hacking.

The bill didn’t pass in the last legislative session, but will likely be reintroduced in the next. Berman has been careful to accentuate the “self-help” portion of the bill, which would give labels broad rights to circulate bogus music files to frustrate downloaders. But, others argue, giving them that right puts them squarely on the path to embedding protected files with viruses or other punitive measures.

One of my favorite movies is “Repo Man,” and one of my favorite scenes in it is when Harry Dean Stanton recites the “Repo Code” to his young protégé: “I shall not cause harm to any vehicle, nor to the personal contents thereof; nor through inaction, let that vehicle, or the personal contents thereof, come to harm.” The point being, a car that hasn’t been paid for should be repossessed if payments are far enough behind; but nothing not belonging to the titleholder should come to grief in the process.

The record companies have every right to curb piracy within legal and ethical means. They have no right at all to put privately owned PCs in harm’s way in doing so. The tricky part will be letting them accomplish the former without leaving the door open for the latter.

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