The Digital Beat: The Fed's Big Bad Music Bill

After spending more than a year fighting illegal MP3s, the recording industry is finally getting some help from the cavalry: the federal government. The salvo is coming in the form of the Security Systems Standards and Certification Act, a proposed bill that would make it tough, if not impossible, to play bootleg MP3s on digital music hardware. Already a host of critics are rallying against what they say would be a draconian solution. The critics are right.

The SSSCA was introduced last month by Senator Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), chairman of the Senate Commerce committee and Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) in effort to control the spread of illegal digital music. If passed, the bill would require manufacturers to include security technologies that would prevent digital music machines from playing illegal MP3s. It would also punish any consumer who tries to disable the security chip from the players. The penalty could be as high as $1,000,000 or ten years in prison.

Here's the catch: The so-called "certified security technologies" that the bill refers to do not currently exist -- not that people haven't been trying. Major record companies, including Sony and Time Warner, have been trying to get their own Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) off the ground for several months to no avail. Companies in Europe have begun issuing CDs that scramble music so that it cannot be copied into MP3 format. Even companies like Napster have been trying to help out in at least some regard by filtering illegally copied tunes. Yet bootlegs are everywhere. And that's not going to change any time soon.

But this isn't stopping the big bad senators. Despite the fact that everyone knows how difficult it is to create a technology standard, the Feds are threatening to lay down the law. "The private sector has twelve months to agree on a standard," the SSSCA states, "or the Secretary of Commerce will step in." Sounds like a threat to me. But a hollow threat, nonetheless. There's no way some crotchety politicians will be able to hack together a standard when they probably can't navigate the Macy Gray homepage. Even so, it's scary to think that the SSSCA could give the Feds any control over this nascent industry at all.

If the SSSCA were to go through, it would bring the burgeoning digital music market to a crashing halt. MP3 players are flooding the market in virtually every imaginable form: portables, car stereos, even watches. None of these have a security standard, which means every manufacturer would be potentially liable.

So are the senators as dumb as they seem? Not really. The SSSCA at the very least could slow down the progress of a competing bill, the Music Online Competition Act. Introduced in the House of Representatives by Chris Cannon (R-Utah) and Rick Boucher (D-Va.), the MOCA would revise existing copyright laws to extend the definition of fair use -- almost the polar opposite of what the SSSCA is trying to achieve. Already, there's at least one online petition ( against the SSSCA. Such is the continued legacy of Napster. Not only did it open the floodgates, it inspired twenty-first-century music fans to mobilize.