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WORKING WEEKEND: Dissin' in the wind

15 Mar, 2002 By: Bruce Apar

All that seemed to be missing was comic provocateur John Belushi bellowing, "food fight," then running for cover while the combatants engaged in cross-fire.

In the dustup that's been occurring the last couple weeks at Senate hearings on copy protection of entertainment properties, though, it wasn't errant undergrads at odds, but the gods of the West Coast north and south tossing off thunderbolts like so many schoolboy spitballs.

In one corner was Michael Eisner, as formidable and successful a CEO as this country has known in recent decades. Just ask Wall Street, investors and the millions of happy Disney consumers worldwide. In another corner was Andy Grove, Intel-lectual icon of Silicon Valley who's the brains behind the brains inside computers – chips that get faster by the nanosecond. With a battle royale like this, folks, who the heck needs Tonya Harding getting it on with Paula Jones.

At issue is whether the high-tech heavyweights, embodied by Grove & Co., owe protection – the copyright kind -- to the software strongholds, epitomized by Eisner and his cast of content conglomerateurs.

Basically, the content crew is fed up – and filled with fear -- over its movies and music getting intercepted and dispersed cost-free on the digital superhighway paved by the Internet, recordable PC drives and other digital media,. It wants the tech types to build adequate anti-copy circuitry into PCs, DVD players and MP3 music players to thwart even casual copiers.

"Is it the responsibility of the world at large to protect an industry whose business model is facing a strategic challenge?" groused Grove, I suspect rhetorically, in an interview with The New York Times.

Eisner, in a curious analogy, compared theft of intellectual property like Monsters, Inc. to unlocking gas pumps to let fuel run free. "Honey, want to take in a premium tonight? There's a new one at the Mobilplex I heard is a real gas." The Mouse king further claimed that because the lure of software piracy fuels demand for their machines, PC makers are not eager to create anti-copy technology.

That raises the question of whether the content creators might consider incentivizing the hardware honchos to stimulate R&D on the very anti-piracy technology they so covet. At least that kind of discussion would keep the finger-pointing and name-calling where they belong – in school.

The technologists are disingenuous to cavalierly dismiss out of hand the plausible notion that they bear some responsibility to uphold the copyright integrity of the very software that drives sales of their products. If it wasn't for Hollywood movies, how many DVD players would be in homes today? We'll take a wild guess and say about zero million.

At the same time, the entertainers are being Luddites by insisting theirs is a business model that cannot easily be changed, or is not necessary to change.

The inevitable example was invoked at the hearings of consumers wanting single songs instead of whole albums, driving the music industry to innovate its old ways to monetize the new behavior. There is no direct movie parallel for that, apart from studios producing shorts in addition to feature-length fare, which they are wise to explore in the Internet age. But it also was suggested the time has come for such possible changes as studios' posting movies on the Internet day and date with theatrical release.

Like its core product, feature-length films, Hollywood's basic business model has served it well for 100 years. Why change it now? So it has a chance of being around for another 100.

As the hearings wore on, cooler heads began to control the agenda, thanks to the measured probity of AOL Time Warner's newly anointed CEO Richard Parsons, who with Intel CEO Craig Barrett announced a forthcoming joint "statement of principles" that presumably will be the first step toward a d?tente between the hardliners on both the hardware and software fronts.

Should the government step in to enforce video piracy laws, or should the studios have to pursue civil remedies at their own expense to protect their copyrights? Tell us here.

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