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THE MORNING BUZZ: In the Digital Age, the Pen Really Is Mightier Than the Sword

21 May, 2002 By: Holly J. Wagner

It's becoming increasingly clear that we can't expect the studios, copy protection developers and replicators to protect their digital wares, so there's only one answer: we must act quickly to outlaw the dastardly technology that threatens to undercut American industry and ruin the music and movie industries for all time: felt-tip markers.

That's right, a few geeks who wanted (for some unfathomable reason) to play Celine Dion's “A New Day Has Come” on their computers this week found their disc drives rejected the CD. Until someone whipped out that instrument of destruction, The Marker, and obliterated the proprietary Key2Audio track that was supposed to protect the Sony content from unauthorized copying.

The system works by feeding bogus data to the computer's hard drive. Since computers are programmed to read data files first, they keep trying to read the bogus data and never skip to the tunes. This probably cost Sony a pretty penny to develop. But then those evil techies figured out they could defeat it by redacting the data track at the edge of the disc with a Magic Marker.

To me this seems an awful lot like when we found out more than a decade ago that all the fancy, space-age composite materials and stealth systems in the latest bomber concealed it from the most sophisticated new high-tech detection systems – but not from the simplest 1950s-era radar.


Now we have this parallel, which pits the finest technological minds in the entertainment industry against the greedy, callous public. For years people have been running around using markers with impunity. Now, this has got to stop.

Quick, somebody tell Sen. Hollings! The industry can depend on him to carry the ball on Capitol Hill. If we start right now, he should be issuing ultimatums to Pentel and Bic by summer's end. Surely we can trust Hollings to lead the charge against this horrible scourge on the New Economy. Lord knows we can't leave something this important to market forces.

I can hardly wait for the Senate hearings. Walt Disney Co. president and CEO Michael Eisner will no doubt argue that PaperMate is corrupting society with its blatant attack on copyrighted materials, touting felt-tip pens at the expense of the legitimate writing implements like chisels and stone tablets. Office supply stores will have to launch advertising counteroffensives with slogans like “Copy responsibly, just like the monks did before Guttenberg.”

Then MPA president Jack Valenti can suggest the government should control pens and pen production and, of course, send the FBI and U.S. Customs to raid unauthorized pen producers and seize shipments of suspicious imported pens. We don't want these things falling into the wrong hands.

Of course, we'll have to outlaw connect-the-dots puzzles and all forms of homework not done on computers, because they unwittingly train youngsters to be digital pirates. Once you put the tools in their hands, they'll run amok. Subversive tots will run around singing “Ring Around the Disc.”

Soon the pocket protector will become the symbol of the digital counterculture and if those youngsters get organized we'll have to deal with a new threat, the Black Penthers.

As you can see this won't be an easy fight. We'll have to organize. We'll have to promote the benefits of pencils, ballpoints and playing charades as communications media. Music labels may even have to give a few crayons away to get users accustomed to using such tricky devices. Worst of all, we may have a tough fight on our hands with the indelible ink lobby.

There's only one problem with this bill, but sharper minds than ours will have to work it out: Once the bill passes, what will the president use to sign it?

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