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Hollywood and the Internet: Time for the Sequel

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The Internet has created huge numbers of businesses: Amazon, eBay, Google, Skype to name but a few. These businesses disrupted -- and even displaced -- old businesses: local bookstores, classified ads, newspaper and magazine advertising, long-distance calling -- but you didn't see the bookstores, the print industry, or even the long-distance telephone companies going to Congress for relief and a ban on the Internet. But then, they're not the recording industry or Hollywood.

Even before Napster, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and Hollywood were fighting a rearguard action against copyright infringement. Fearing the easy ability to copy and share copies of music and movies that the combination of digital technology and the Internet afford, lobbyists from the music and movie industries got Congress to pass the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act. This law, much hated by the young, those in favor of using the new technology creatively, moms and dads who want to post a YouTube video of their toddler dancing to pop music, anyone who wants to share a song they just bought with their best friend, makes it illegal to circumvent copyright protection. This is true even if the usage is what's called "fair use" -- usage permitted under the law. Break the copyright protection on a recording or movie you bought and you've broken the law.

Now Hollywood has upped the ante. A new bill in front of Congress, the Stop Online Piracy Act would require the Domain Name System (DNS), the system that resolves the Internet urls (such as www.amazon.com) to the string of numbers that denote Internet addresses, to redirect users from sites allegedly supporting copyright infringement to "disappear" from the Internet. A Senate bill, the PROTECT IP Act would do the same thing. With cyber security a national priority, Hollywood would like to make it harder to determine whether a website is legitimate. Yes, you read those words correctly; Hollywood is lobbying for a bill that would derail current efforts to secure the network.

For a long time we've been relying on DNS to get us to sites, but DNS can be fooled. You can be sent to the wrong site (one that could steal your identity information, your password, and worse). So the U.S. government has been pushing for its replacement by DNSSEC, a technology that uses digital signatures to ensure that the site you visit actually has the credentials for that site (technically speaking, it has "signed" the certificate for the site). When you type "www.bankofamerica.com" into your browser, you are actually going to the Bank of America website -- and not some facsimile.

DNSSEC will not work properly under the bills being pushed by Hollywood lobbyists. Under these bills, if a user attempts to navigate to a site suspected of carrying pirated content, she will instead be sent to a site that warns her of this. Or putting it another way, her session will be hijacked. How will a user be able to tell when she is being redirected because the site she is seeking is carrying pirated content and when she is being misdirected because someone nefarious is sitting in the middle, breaking the proper connection. The short answer is she won't.

The longer answer is that the two bills will make DNSSEC --- the secure version of DNS --- much harder to implement (if not impossible). At a time when cybertheft and cyberexploitation are issues of major national-security concern, Hollywood is seeking to undermine security to -- perhaps -- save copyright. SOPA and PROTECT IP are bills that only a Hollywood copyright lawyer could love.

This isn't the only way the story of Hollywood and the Internet could end. Consider the Icelandic pop singer Bjork, who has recently released a new album. She turned it "into a sort of audiovisual game, delivering a miniature production studio into the world's willing hands," according to the New York Times. With the movies Hollywood owns, it could do the same -- and much more.

Consider the business of selling old movies with editing tools. You heard that. What if Hollywood sold films with the ability to cut and paste, add characters, change lines, copy scenes etc.? The simplest would be a version of a film allowing some cutting and pasting, but no other editing. More interesting -- and more expensive -- would be a version that allowed even more complex editing (such as substituting characters). Finally, the most expensive version would be a film with no restrictions except for watermarking (so as to enable tracking).

Hollywood owns the copyrights on those films. No one could compete. Think of it: Casablanca straight, or with some scenes repeated ("Round up the usual suspects" appearing at multiple points in the movie), or with Ronald Reagan cast as Rick and Hillary Clinton as Ilse. One could present a lawyer who just passed his bar exams with To Kill a Mockingbird --- but with the new lawyer playing Atticus Finch. With the right editing software, you could change the characters, modify the plot, go wherever your filmmaking imagination takes you. The movies are there; all that's needed to make this happen is for some engineers to build the tools (more details can be found here). Imagine birthday parties where kids put themselves into the Harry Potter and Hermione roles, Star Wars parties where people vie for the ability to become Darth Vader. Geminio! Hollywood creates a new use for old films and grows new businesses, increasing audiences and further expanding the film, computer, and network industries.

The current movie of Hollywood and the Internet is old and doesn't play very well. It's time to move onto the sequel. Instead of SOPA and the PROTECT IP Act, Hollywood should duck into the telephone booth and emerge ditching the lobbyists, hiring the engineers, and looking like the companies that have fully embraced new communications technologies. Now what a great sequel that would be.

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