Don't Hobble the PCs

Is the best way to stop the pirating of copyrighted material on the Web to build personal computers and DVD players that won't allow such theft?

The entertainment industry thinks so, and it has some powerful allies on Capitol Hill. One of them, Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ernest Hollings (D) of South Carolina, has sponsored a bill to mandate copyright-protection standards for new computers.

The senator's basic concern is to provide safeguards that will encourage entertainment producers to plunge into the digital world, thus spurring technological innovations like broadband high-speed Internet service and high-definition TV. The economic payoff, Mr. Hollings and many others believe, would be big.

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But the loss of online freedom for computer users could also be big if such a move is pushed through.

Copyright protection is a legitimate concern. The search for ways to prevent the pirating of songs, films, and TV shows online should go on. But if mechanisms are built into digital devices to restrict copying, they could easily interfere with individuals' legitimate and full-range use of their equipment. Users should, for instance, be able to shift material to other formats, make backup copies, or record for later play. Restricting such activities could dampen innovation and economic activity.

Instead of trying to entrench the status quo, filmmakers and others would be smarter to seek out ways to lure online customers with fair pricing, big selection, and convenience.

That kind of innovation, plus the inclination of most consumers to obtain their movies or TV shows legally, may solve the need to protect creative work in a digital age. Heavy-handed legislation probably won't.

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