BOB GARFIELD: We're back with On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. After years of battling copyright infringement in the courts, Hollywood, armed with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, is trying to turn the enemies' digital devices to its own advantage. The New York Times terms this new anti-theft technology "digital armor." Hollywood studios call it digital rights management software. We have NPR's cultural trends correspondent Rick Karr here to tell us where this is all going. Welcome back, Rick!
RICK KARR: It is always a pleasure, Brooke; Happy New Year.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Happy New Year. So for those of us who are not experts, what exactly is new here?
RICK KARR: What's new here isn't a whole lot in terms of the way we receive digital culture. I mean DVDs, from the time they came out a few years ago, have had digital rights management built in, and the way you can tell is if you take a DVD and you put it into your computer and you try to copy what's on the DVD, your computer says "Enh! - can't do it." That's a very simple form of digital rights management. What it does is it says you can't copy it onto your hard drive and then e-mail it to your friends. Now what Hollywood and the record industry are trying to do now is engage more complex digital rights management systems that would say, for instance, if you wanted to take a song off a CD and drag it onto your computer hard drive, a window would pop up that says "You actually don't have permission to do this. You didn't pay for this right. But --if you give us a buck 50 right now, we'll let you do it."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. So what's wrong with that?
RICK KARR:Well, effectively what critics of the technology and the law say is that you have lost rights under this new regime of technology and law that you always had in the old world. The kinds of rights that we're talking about here are something known as "fair use." The use is fair as long as it doesn't detract from anybody's ability to make money.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Ah-ha! But the fact is, with digital technology and the ability to make incredibly high quality copies, you can make money, because you could potentially distribute it and sell it yourself over the net or in some other form, and that's precisely what these companies are worried about, and that's what these new technologies are about.
RICK KARR: And that's exactly what the Hollywood studios and the record companies and in fact at this point publishers are saying about the digitization of culture.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:I want you to summarize for me some of these latest advances in the anti-theft technology that we've been reading about. Now if you have certain kinds of high-tech plasma TVs, you can't watch certain HBO channels in the best format out of fear that you might be able to duplicate it. This is new. What else is new?
RICK KARR: Well effectively what's new is that the technology has advanced to the point where instead of subscribing to cable and premium channels or a satellite system or going down to your local Blockbuster and renting or buying a DVD you might be able to download a movie that lasts on your hard drive for 24 hours and then disappears. Now that's attractive to the folks in Hollywood because they don't actually have to press a DVD, and there's no intermediary like Blockbuster to take some of the profit away or, in, in fact to earn most of the revenue over the life of the DVD. There is some doubt about whether or not in the long run the technology is going to be effective. I mean any time you put one of these sort of digital locks on something there is somebody who's going to be able to pick the lock.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So we read recently in the New York Times that people who have very high tech televisions and other high tech equipment for bringing in complicated digital signals also have within that technology switches that Hollywood can use to prevent them from downloading or copying or even watching this material if Hollywood doesn't want them to. But when would those switches be thrown? What's the time line?
RICK KARR: The federal government has been trying to sort of mandate this transition to digital television which is going to play a big role in this, but the federal government is trying to mandate that at a time when the economy has hit the skids. People don't have money to go out and buy 2 - 3,000 dollar television sets just because the federal government is mandating it. So there's a sense in Washington right now as far as television goes that the federal government's going to have to back off that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Okay, so the transition will be slower than we thought, but the stage is set. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act protects Hollywood and the courts and its digital armor will defend it on the ground. Consumers eventually are going to have to pony up -- probably a little more, but not a lot. Is this what the critics of digital armor are so upset about?
RICK KARR: The critics of the technology and the law that backs it up say what we're doing with our culture as a whole with these technologies and this law to back it up is we're saying Brooke Gladstone, you will never own anything again. Every time you want to hear your favorite song, you will pay for it. Everything time you want to read your favorite novel, you will pay for it. And the question that they raise is: do we really want to live in a culture where access to the products of that culture is predicated on your ability to pay every time?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As always, it's fascinating talking to you. Thank you very much.
RICK KARR: It's always a pleasure to be here, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Rick Karr is NPR's cultural trends correspondent and a contributor to PBS's Now with Bill Moyers. [MUSIC]