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Bill C-32 enshrines planned obsolescence

In my basement, there are three milk crates of vinyl records – the music I collected in my teens.  Those records haven’t been played in a very long time.  They became obsolete in October 1982 with the introduction of the audio CD.  CD’s were convenient, easy, and mostly scratch proof.  We all loved them, and vinyl went the way of the dodo.

Upstairs in my living room, there are two 300 disc Pioneer carousel’s fitted to our home stereo. These became obsolete in April 2003, with the introduction of Apple’s now ubiquitous iTunes store.   Digital media meant that we could take our music anywhere.  Even more convenient than CD, it once again changed the way that we listened to music.

In 2003, I unloaded the carousels, digitized every CD, and moved the music collection to an Audio Request ARQ-1 music server where it could be played by the family at will from anywhere in the house and loaded onto an iPod for personal listening.

Last night I bought Messiaen’s La nativité du seigneur from the iTunes store. I had a hankering to hear Dieu Parmi Nous after going out to a Christmas service yesterday afternoon. Like much of the music I buy today, La nativité will never see physical media.  It exists as a stream of bits stored on my iPhone, my PC, and my backup server.

Media format shifts in the music industry have happened twice in my lifetime.  Each shift has generated a boost in revenues for the entertainment industry, as consumers have re-bought media they previously owned, but in the new format.

  1. Many of my old vinyl records I bought again on CD.
  2. With the advent of iTunes, many tracks on vinyl that didn’t make the transition to CD I later rediscovered in the iTunes store.

The music industry has made good money from me selling me my old favorites again and again.

Today that same transition is happening with video.  A few weeks ago I bought a BoxeeBox which allows me to stream video from the Internet to my TV, or from a local store in my house.  For the last couple of weeks I’ve been digitizing our collection of DVD’s in order to allow them to be watched anywhere in the house, or on my iPhone or iPad device.  At the same time I signed up for a NetFlix subscription, and for $8/mo we can watch movies to our hearts content on any PC, the television, or iPod or iPhone that we own.

And that brings me to my point.

Media formats have changed over time, and will continue to change.  The same is true of the devices that we use to to consume that media.  That’s the technology business.

Consumer advocates believe that consumers should have the right to purchase a license for media content, and consume it in whatever fashion they choose.  The distribution media – whether it be bits, vinyl, or plastic discs, shouldn’t have any bearing.   Morever, the entertainment industry has discovered, much to its chagrin, that encouraging format shifting is better for business as well.  How many blu-ray discs also come with a digital media file now, so that you can watch the movie you’ve purchased on another device?  Plenty!

Bill C-32, the Canadian copyright bill currently before Parliament, is a fairly balanced piece of legislation.  It gives we consumers the right to format shift media for our own consumption, instead of re-buying that media. And it gives the entertainment industry broad rights to prosecute content thieves — those who never bought the content in the first place.

The big flaw in Bill C-32 is in the section on digital locks.  A content owner can lock a piece of digital media, and this bill would make it illegal to unlock it, even to make a backup copy.  With a simply digital lock, the content owner can take away all the rights that a consumer has under the law.  It’s a return to the early days of the United States Digital Millenium Copyright Act just as the US is relaxing key provisions of that legislation as they relate to locks. It’s a step in the wrong direction, and out of step with evolving industry practice today.

A lot of folks are urging the government to pass C-32. The argument is that we, as a nation, can’t afford to wait any longer for copyright reform.  Apparently we’re becoming digital pariah’s because folks like Hulu won’t provide their service in Canada.

Baloney.

We’ve survived until now with our existing copyright regime. We should wait, and get this right, rather than pass a flawed bill — a bill that permits content owners to negate hard-won consumer rights through digital locks.

{ 2 comments… add one }

  • Tristan Naramore December 11, 2010, 9:14 pm

    I shudder to think how a good Messiaen recording would be mangled and compressed to death by an iTunes mp3. Convenient, yes. But have you ever really listened to music on a good system (and I'm not talking about Bose or Cambridge Audio)? The difference is tremendous.

    • Alec December 12, 2010, 7:58 am

      I've heard incredible audio on some very high end systems — MBL, Mark Williams etc. My personal favorites are tube based systems, like those from VAC. I like the warm bloomy sound they produce.

      For most of us these are out of reach from a price perspective, and not many are willing to dedicate a listening room to them.

      In the meantime, digital encoding techniques are becoming radically better. The Messiaen recording I referenced is delivered as a 256kb/s VBR AAC audio stream. For my uses, it's more than adequate — in fact indistinguishable from CD on any system that I would commonly play it on.

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