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Back when Apple Computer was promising the Beatles’ Apple Records that it wouldn’t switch from the computer to the music industry, the idea that the two companies would ever be in the same business seemed silly. And yet today, there’s no telling where computers and hard drives stop and music, movies, and television begin. The result is a potentially cataclysmic clash of special interests fighting over your rights as a consumer. And Apple finds itself right in the middle.

The Fight for Your Rights

The most recent battle is being fought in the U.S. Supreme Court, in the form of MGM v. Grokster. (A ruling is expected not long after this issue comes out.) In that case, the movie studio is attempting to hold the creator of file-sharing software responsible for the illegal activity of its users. Technology companies (including Apple) are rightfully concerned about the case: Under some interpretations, a win by MGM could make devices like the iPod illegal, because the iPod can be filled to the brim with illegally downloaded music.

Previous court rulings have made it legal for us to record TV shows on our VCRs and TiVos for later viewing. You can legally copy CDs to cassette tapes or to iPods. So far, those rulings have stated that you’re free to move your stuff from device to device and enjoy it wherever you like.

Unfortunately, guided by the same fear that led movie studios to try and stop the VCR (which, if successful, would have destroyed the massively profitable home-video market before it was even born), the studios and record labels are working hard to roll such freedoms back. The Grokster case is just the latest battle: the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998 is another egregious example. The DMCA made an end run around your freedom to move your stuff around and enjoy it wherever you like by making it illegal for anyone to create ways for you to exercise that freedom.

Innovation at Risk

As a technology company, Apple is in the business of creating innovative products and selling them to you and me. But today, a lot of that innovation is happening in the realm of music, movies, and television, and Apple can’t venture there without the big media companies as partners.

Like any good company, Apple would like to serve its customers by creating new technologies. But Apple must also stay on good terms with the music companies if it wants the iTunes Music Store to survive. (No tunes, no iTunes.) And if there’s ever going to be an Apple set-top box, a handheld Apple video player, or an Apple Movie Store, Apple will need to be in good stead with the movie and TV industries.

If you want to see how this conflict plays out, just look at iTunes. Load up your iPod at home, and then bring it into work. Using iTunes, can you drag your music out of your iPod and onto the hard drive of your work computer? No, because Apple has always been concerned that the music industry will view the iPod as a piracy-enabling device.

Or consider Apple’s iTunes Sharing feature, which lets other people listen to your music but not keep copies. It’s a great idea. But ever since Apple introduced iTunes Sharing, it’s gradually become less useful. You can share MP3s with anyone, but you can’t share files you download from the iTunes Music Store. In previous iterations of the software, you could share your music with anyone on the Internet, but then a software update crippled that feature. Previously, you could share music with five people at one time; now you’re limited to five unique computers in a 24-hour period.

Apple’s not alone. Several companies offer CD- and DVD-burning utilities, for example, but those programs can’t copy commercial Hollywood DVDs—that would be illegal under the DMCA. Want to make a backup copy of your Finding Nemo DVD because you’re worried that your three-year old will scratch the original beyond repair? You’re out of luck (unless you want to use illegal DVD-copying software such as MacTheRipper). Want to buy El Gato’s EyeTV 500 HDV tuner for your Mac? Better do it soon. After July 1, 2005, the company won’t be able to sell it, thanks to new FCC regulations requiring copy protection on every HDTV device sold.

Arr, There Be Pirates

Of course, the movie studios and record companies aren’t really that concerned about iTunes sharing and DVD copying. They’re afraid of piracy. Music, movies, and TV shows are being traded illegally at an alarming and accelerating rate. If you can get everything for free, what happens to the music, movie, and TV industries?

But piracy is nothing new. People have been copying movies, TV shows, CDs, tapes, and records since the dawn of recordable media. When I was in high school, friends would make me cassette tapes of their records and tapes. And when I went off to college, I rented some movies and copied them onto blank videotapes to take with me.

Saying that college kids will pirate music and movies is like saying they’ll stay up late and drink beer—these things are essentially givens. But they grow out of it. And while there are some dedicated pirates who refuse to buy anything, I do believe most adults, if given the opportunity, will be honest and buy their music, movies, and computer software.

In the meantime, the crusade to eliminate piracy from the face of the earth has trampled the rights of casual everyday users, and useful features are disappearing from products (if they ever had a chance to appear at all). Does this stop the pirates from pirating? Of course not. But it does make life less convenient for the rest of us, and makes it tougher for technology companies like Apple to make compelling products.

Give Peace a Chance

What happens now? In my dreams, the Supreme Court will rule in Grokster’s favor, the DMCA will be ruled unconstitutional, and Congress will stop favoring the needs of media corporations over the rights of consumers. Oh, and I also want a pony.

In reality, we’ll likely continue living with compromises. Media companies will keep trying to limit consumers’ rights. When they fail, they’ll find new, profitable ways to sell products to consumers. Sometimes consumers’ rights will be reduced, but at a level we can live with, as with the iTunes Music Store. And sometimes media companies will win, and new technologies will be crippled. Then consumers will have to decide whether the benefits of the new technologies outweigh their onerous restrictions.

In the meantime, enjoy your iPods and your TiVos. Let’s just hope that we live in a world where there’s more where they came from.

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