Open letter to US Representative Timothy Johnson on the eve of the Pro-IP bill’s expected passage by the House.

I fired off the below after reading Corey Doctorow’s recent news post about Wal-Mart’s about face on DRM. It occurred to me shortly afterwards that there may be enough consumers affected by the Yahoo, MSN, and Wal-Mart server shut-downs that we might be able to make noise enough to get a new DMCA exemption for those law-abiding music purchasers. Here’s the text of my letter. Kindly write your own Representative and push for the same sort of change. The bill has already been passed by the Senate, but there’s still a window for opportunity to enact reform that benefits the consumer along with its massive gifts to industry.

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The 1996 Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA), passed a few years before you came into office, did a great deal of damage to the Fair Use rights of consumers in your district. I firmly believe that, as we play host to neither Nashville nor New York City nor Los Angeles, that it did far more harm to your constituents than good. It rendered it a criminal act to bypass the easily-bypassed encryption used in intellectual property management schemes known as “Digital Rights Management” or DRM. This is something that has caused me considerable trouble, given my interest in academic pursuits based around open source development.

More recently, though, the problems that the technical community predicted at the bills passage have come to fruition and begun to affect many voters in your district, including many people without a strong technical background. Yahoo, Microsoft, and Wal-Mart previously “sold” DRM-protected music through their online stores for several years prior to 2008. In 2008, however, they and stores like Amie Street and Amazon.com have led the way in hammering out licensing deals to allow the sale of DRM-free MP3 files with the music of major labels. Competing against the unrestrictive competition from the above, Yahoo and Wal-Mart have switched to selling DRM-free media as well. Microsoft has taken a different tact, ending sales of its older standard, PlaysForSure, through MSN.com in favor of selling a new format to owners of Microsoft-licensed Zune media players.

Unfortunately, but predictably, all three of the vendors listed above have either shut down or announced plans to shut down the servers that end user computers use to authenticate the media purchased from them. This ultimately strips the user of the ability to transfer the media to a new computer, new media player, etc, and leaves the consumer without any meaningful recourse, due largely to the aforementioned 1996 Digital Millenium Copyright Act.

Very, very soon the bipartisan Pro-IP bill will come up for a vote in the House. I would like to ask you to add a simple amendment granting an exemption to the DMCA to consumers affected by these issues, allowing them the legal right to remove the DRM protections from their legally purchased media files. This has happened before, with CircuitCity’s DivX program, and it could very well happen again (should Blu-Ray be superseded or otherwise begin to collapse). A broad exemption allowing those who legally purchase this media to legally unlock it would be greatly welcome. The precedent created would not only help consumers: Media producers would also benefit, insofar as this exemption would add another level of disincentive to piracy, eliminating one (of many) common complaints about DRM.

<s>Personal contact information that doesn’t need to be as open as the letter proper</s> The morning business hours in DC and our mutual home coincide with my evening, when I would be happy to speak with you or your staff. Please call me with any questions you may have about the common-sense proposal above.

Thank you for your time,
Sean Crago
Kathmandu, Nepal

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Update: Went ahead and sent the below off to Rick Boucher of Virginia, too, as a result of this old Ars Technica article. Anyone else want to help?

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My name is Sean Crago. I’m a member of the EFF and a longtime admirer of your work. <s>Personal job and contact information not intended for the blog</s>, and am unable to fight as strongly as I should to support you as a result. Please accept my apologies.

I’m writing to urge you to step up pressure to append some positive changes to the PRO-IP Act prior to its passage. If you can’t get the entire FAIR USE Act tacked on, would you please try to use the recent outrage over Wal-Mart’s plans to shut down their DRM authentication servers? This will prevent many legal purchases from being retained by their owners, encouraging piracy over DRM when those are the only available options. It would be very much in the best interests of consumers and media producers alike to have a DMCA exemption that allows for users to bypass DRM on files purchased from the now defunct DRM music services at Yahoo, Wal-Mart, and MSN Music rather than lose their purchases when they buy their next computer.

This low-lying fruit should, I hope, provide an easier target for you to hit.

I’ve written to my parents’ Congressman as well on this same subject, for lack of one I can truly call my own:
http://mrzaius.com/blog/?p=108

Thank you for your time,
Sean Crago
Kathmandu

PS: I’d love to answer any questions you may have, but please do not call after 1PM Washington DC time, due to the time difference between there and Nepal.