In a few years, Americans may not be able to copy a song off a CD, watch a recorded DVD at a friend's house, or store a copy of a television show for more than a day.
Earlier this month, the Federal Communications Commission approved regulations that would require television manufacturers to include anticopying technology in the next generation of televisions. The technology would identify programs that broadcasters do not want consumers to copy without first paying a fee.
And in Congress, lawmakers are considering a bill that would require all digital devices, and the software that runs them, to include a copyright protection system. The system would make it impossible for consumers to make unauthorized copies of music, movies, and television programs.
Such protections, proponents say, would give Hollywood an incentive to offer more entertainment in digital format, thereby spurring consumers' adoption of such technologies as high-definition TV and broadband services.
"The entertainment industry historically has been very, very slow to embrace technology because of concerns about piracy," says Mark Kersey, a broadband analyst with ARS, a market research firm in La Jolla, Calif.
Millions of consumers, for example, already watch pay-per-view movies and undoubtedly would pay for the ability to download digital movies onto their set-top boxes. But consumer advocates argue that the flood of digital entertainment for the home would come at a high cost, both in terms of money and consumer flexibility.
Currently individuals can legally record TV shows, make digital audio files of CDs, and lend books to friends. Such activity is protected under a federal "fair use" statute, which takes into consideration most consumers' need for flexibility.
New regulations being discussed significantly erase fair-use rights in the name of piracy prevention. Ultimately, the entertainment industry hopes to charge consumers for what they now do free of charge.
"The only way they can charge you, they realized, is to first take away your legal right, and then sell that right back to you," says Joe Kraus, president of DigitalConsumer.org, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C.
If certain antipiracy measures pass in Washington, Mr. Kraus says consumers may have to pay extra to play a CD in more than one player; be no longer able to transfer music from a CD to an MP3 player; and be unable to watch a program recorded onto a DVD on a separate machine.
Allowing consumers access to media, but restricting them from adapting it is similar to teaching people to read but not allowing them to write, says Clay Shirky, a professor at New York University. "To say we must make a device that does not do one of those functions is saying that the device is no longer a computer any more," says Mr. Shirky.
The entertainment industry's greatest concern is that the proliferation of digital technology and high-speed Internet access may let consumers download a movie, for example, and send it to thousands of users before it even exits the theaters.
According to Viant, a Boston-based market-research firm, 400,000 to 600,000 films are illegally downloaded from the Internet each day. "[These films] are innocents in a jungle, ready to be ambushed by anyone," says Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, a trade association in Washington.
Mr. Valenti believes consumers should still be able to record copies of films from television onto VHS and DVD formats. He is primarily concerned with consumers making additional copies of films, even if just for a neighbor.
"It is not legal to make a copy of a DVD now. Everything people are doing legally today, they'll be able to do legally tomorrow," says Valenti.