Tue, Oct 10, 2006 - Page 11 News List

`E-pirates' pick a fight

PROTECTION Jerome Martinez and friends handed themselves in to French police, challenging major firms to take them to task for flouting anti-piracy measures


It took more than 10 minutes to persuade the Paris police station's highest-ranking officer that a crime might have taken place, but that did not deter Jerome Martinez and his two companions.

After all, the three had marched halfway across the Latin Quarter one evening late last month, accompanied by about 40 fellow advocates, waving banners and handing out parking-ticket-style leaflets that claimed they had committed a number of offenses.

Among their crimes was listening to a song purchased from iTunes on a device not made by Apple Computer.

The group, StopDRM, largely made up of young computer enthusiasts, was protesting the growing number of subtle restrictions used to limit the use of legally purchased songs and videos.

Protection measures, often called digital rights management (DRM), are supposed to prevent piracy. But critics of the measures say they smack of Big Brother-style controls.

France, long concerned with expanding the diversity of global culture to make room for French offerings, has paid particular attention to digital controls. This summer, while updating copyright regulations, France enacted a law intended to force compatibility of digital music across all devices.

"France really pushed forward the debate over protection measures," said Ted Shapiro, general counsel for Europe of the Motion Picture Association, the international arm of the Motion Picture Association of America.

The French law strengthened the hand of studios and record labels by prohibiting a person's ability to circumvent protection measures; it never required songs to be transferred from one format to the others.

Similar regulations were laid out in the US by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998.

In mounting their protest, members of the group in Paris saw themselves as foot soldiers of the digital generation battling against ever-tighter controls over songs, film and all digitized culture.

Greeted at the police station by almost as many armed riot police officers as there were protesters, they explained their infractions to passers-by.

"Not only did I not use an iPod to listen to an iTunes song, but I transferred the film Blade Runner onto my hand-held movie player," Martinez, 28, said. "I am willing to face the consequences of what they consider an offense."

By his own calculation, Martinez could face a fine of as much as 41,250 euros (US$52,000) and six months in prison.

Martinez patiently laid out the case he built against himself, offering details about his infractions, which included switching music from one format to another and transferring the DVDs to different players.

"They say the law is intended to stop piracy, but I am not a pirate," he said. "I support artists with legally purchased works, but I do not want to be forced to use a particular device to play them."

At that point a policeman came out from behind the line of riot police to escort the three inside the station, where they could register their offenses.

While the impact of the law's push for compatibility across devices remains unclear, Shapiro argued against legislating technical standards.

"The studios do not want to control culture," he said. "They want to get a return on investment."

More than a week later, Martinez said, he took the additional step of sending registered letters to Microsoft and Apple informing them of his actions, but he still did not know whether a prosecution would take place.

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