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Rights Management, Who Needs It?

I was appalled to receive an alert from FIPR, the Foundation for Information Policy Research, which reveals that the EU’s Internal Market Commissioner Frits Bolkestein, is arguing for wider adoption of rights-management mechanisms, which FIPR describes as the electronic locks which ensure, for example, that you can only use an ink cartridge from Hewlett-Packard with a Hewlett-Packard printer, or a battery made by Motorola in a Motorola mobile phone.

A European Citizen of the Future

Not content with paving the way for US-style, business-method patents and direct software patentability of computer programs, data structures and process descriptions, which will make it dangerous, if not impossible for smaller, innovative companies to challenge giant-multinationals, the EU appears prepared to work against the interests of its citizens. Instead of liberalising the market in car components, as an example, it is quietly pushing forward legislation that will make the electronic accessories, such as GPS systems, even more expensive.

By strengthening the protection of rights-management technology in Europe, Brussels is playing into the hands of the monopolists, delivering the future on a plate to the companies that are rapidly ring-fencing their products and services, which include digital content , such as games, video and music, live sports coverage and any other deliverable supported by electricity and Silicon.

FIPR’s chairman, Professor Ross Anderson, argues that instead of promoting rights management technology, the EU should be regulating it to prevent it being abused to set up monopolies that will hinder growth and job- creation.

“Rights Management technology”, says Anderson, “will also be used to subvert the Single Market - the European Union's single greatest achievement. Once most products have a software or online component, it will be legal and easy for vendors to charge different prices to people in different European countries - and indeed to people with different income EU to promote it will undermine one of the core purposes of the European Union.”

So, as businesses become increasingly digital in delivery and content, software will provide a greater proportion of their underlying value and that means that many businesses will become more like the software businesses. “Learning to deal with an industry that's not just globalised but software-driven will be a big challenge for governments over the next ten years”, says Anderson.

For you and me, such legislation will mean that car components may be cheaper but anything software driven will be more expensive and so while a chassis may hold a relatively similar price across the EU states, the final price may be determined by the electronics and by the way, rather like ink cartridges in your printer or which radar detector might fit on your dash, the manufacturer will be able to block cheaper third-party devices completely on a country by country basis.

In my eyes, this sounds like an end to any pretence of real competition in the European technology market. Worse still, the way that copyright legislation is heading, our ability to access any form of digital information will be restricted by our ability to pay for the privilege. Europe could have set an example for the rest of the world, outside the now deeply restrictive United States, to follow. Instead it appears to be offering its citizens a future of digital handcuffs and not digital rights.


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