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Tuesday, May 14, 2002
PluggedIn: Want to burn a CD? Get a law

Soon, if you want to mix your own music and copy it onto a compact disc for the gym or the road, you are going to need a lot more than a fancy CD drive for your computer. You are going to need a new law....

That, anyway, is the view of Internet pioneer turned virtual organizer Joe Kraus, who has proposed a technology "Bill of Rights" so consumers can legally copy music and television programs in the digital age, just as they have done for decades with audio and video tapes.

Digital music is so easy to copy it has spawned rampant piracy, and a wave of laws and bills aimed at stopping it, many of which are now being debated in Congress -- and Hollywood.

"Consumers are really losing these rights quickly and silently," says Kraus, who founded Internet portal Excite.com but now works full time on DigitalConsumer.org, an online consumer advocacy group.

"We're all used to mixing tapes, we're all used to lending a book to a friend. All those things we're used to doing are in the process of being eroded," Kraus said.

Years after music-trading program Napster's debut -- and long after a court ordered it shut down for allowing piracy -- CD burning, the process of copying music and other media onto a compact disc, is hitting the mainstream.

Personal computer maker Gateway Inc. sells more than half its computers with drives which can write CDs, creating mixes of songs with perfect quality.

It is fine to do that, according to the legal concept of "fair use", which allows a person to copy content they have acquired, or a bit of content they don't own -- like quoting a book in a book review -- without permission of the copyright owner.

As it gets easier to make infinite, perfect copies with digital technology, copyright owners want to make this slightly fuzzy fair use concept cut and dried. Kraus argues they are going too far by taking aim at the technology itself.

For example, content makers want to limit copying of digital television and prohibit retransmission over the Net.

"If my son is in a TV commercial, I'm in New York and my wife is in San Francisco, I can't send a copy (of the commercial) to her via e-mail. The digital standards don't allow any retransmission over the Internet," says Kraus.

That's where the Bill of Rights comes in. It has six points, and he gives examples of what they mean:

-- the right to time-shift -- lets you watch a tape of a television show after it was broadcast

-- the right to space-shift, which means you're allowed to make your own CDs for personal use, like jogging or other out-of-home listening

-- the right to make backup copies

-- the right to look at content on the platform of your choice, meaning you can watch a DVD on a computer instead of a TV

-- the right to translate content into comparable formats, which would let a blind person read a book with a text-to-speech program

-- the right to use technology to secure the rights above: This is the kicker. Some new CDs can be read by audio CD players but not by computer CD drives. This would let you use a program to overcome that anti-copying technology, for instance. However, if you bought a license to a song for a weekend and then used technology to keep it longer, breaking the contract, you would not be protected.

Since it was founded in mid-March, DigitalConsumer has received requests from some 35,000 people to request more than 100,000 faxes in favor of the bill be sent to legislators, and Kraus hopes to find Congressional sponsors soon.

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