Digital Jitters in Tinseltown

Hollywood's longest-running drama this summer, with perhaps the largest box office implications, isn't on the big screen. Rather, it's in hearing rooms, courtrooms, and board rooms, where entertainment executives are trying to write the rules for the coming all-digital age in films and TV programming as well as music.

The quality of pictures and sound so produced will surpass all past products. But – and here's where Hollywood starts to shiver – the new technology lends itself to an array of copying methods that will preserve that quality. Individual consumers – to say nothing of pirates interested in selling their copies – can replicate, edit, and share to their heart's content.

Copyright protections threaten to evaporate, and entertainment executives – as well as many individual artists – peering down the road see their profits wafting away as well.

Through lobbying, lawsuits, and cutting deals with high-tech firms, the industry is vigorously on the offensive. It has a legitimate cause. Copyright protection, in some form, must be brought into the digital age. Unlimited pilfering of other people's creative efforts is both immoral and economically enervating.

But the way such protection is maintained is all important. A balance has to be struck. If regulations and legal rulings come down too heavily, the other side of the creative coin could be marred. Technological innovation, and consumer choice, are also values that need protection.

One option being weighed in Congress would allow copyright holders to hack into file-trading networks on the Web, free of normal legal constraints, in order to stop the exchange of their products.

Surely reasonable compromises can be found short of that kind of electronic combat. For starters, makers of high-tech equipment could voluntarily build in some copyright recognition and protection capabilities. At the same time, the entertainment industry needs to become a little less apprehensive and to think harder about how to use the new technology to expand its business. The market for its products will likely only grow as digital possibilities are realized.

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