WASHINGTON -- Musicians like Metallica and Dr. Dre are furious at the casual thieves whose hard drives bulge with music snatched free over the Internet, thanks to software designed specifically to make stealing easy. So far, the slow transmission of graphic images has kept the problem confined mainly to audio. But movies are next in line, and their turn won't be long in coming.
The small window of time before films will be as freely plundered as music is the number of years or months it will take for communications companies to make broadband access to the Internet widely available.
Broadband -- lines, cables or wireless systems that can handle many more bytes of information -- will replace most of today's Internet connections, which use lines too limited to swallow great wads of graphic material rapidly. And broadband is coming in a headlong rush.
A number of new movies, the ones now in theaters, have already been put on the Internet by pilfering zealots eager to enfold films in the same embrace now choking the music world, even though few computer users yet have ways to download them.
Neither I nor anyone else in the movie industry chooses to rail against technology. Every company I know about is busily spending millions trying to develop business models that will have rapport with the Internet.
But what the nation, particularly the Congress and the courts, must confront is how to protect people's privacy, while ensuring that creative artists and distributors can transport movies and music without their valuable works being burglarized.
Copyright protects not just the financial interest of people who create artistic or intellectual property, but the very existence of creative work.
If copyright can no longer protect the distribution of the work they produce, who will invest immense sums to create films or any other creative material of the kind we now take for granted? Do the thieves really expect new music and movies to continue pouring forth if the artists and companies behind them are not paid for their work?
Most Americans don't realize that the industries that use copyright -- movies, television, home video, music, publishing, computer software -- collect more international revenues than any other area of business in this country: more than automobiles and auto parts, more than aircraft and than agriculture. At a time when this country is bleeding from trade deficits, the copyright industries have a surplus balance of trade with every country where copyrighted works are sold or licensed. These businesses are a national treasure, one that every other nation views with envy.
The Internet marauders argue that copyright is old-fashioned, a decaying relic of a non-Internet world. But suppose some genius invented a magic key that could open the front door of every home in America and wanted to make the keys available to everyone under a canopy sign that read, "It's a new world -- take what you want."
Wouldn't it be the responsibility of our society to try to control the use of that key?
Jack Valenti is chairman of the Motion Picture Association.
EFF Executive Director Shari Steele's reply to this Op-Ed.
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