Copy Protection: The Next Level

During copyright protection hearings in Washington the last week of February, South Carolina Senator Ernest "Fritz" Hollings labored mightily to please patrons Michael Eisner, CEO of Walt Disney Company, and Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA). Hollings' questioning of panelists from concerned industries was generally even-handed, according to several reports, except for his treatment of Intel executive vice president Leslie Vadasz, whose opposition to government-mandated copy control provoked an especially vindictive outpouring of vitriol from the 80-year-old Senator.

Like National Academy for the Recorded Arts and Sciences (NARAS) president Michael Greene, Eisner and Valenti are extremely vocal advocates of stronger measures to protect copyrighted creative works. Captains of the entertainment industry have sought favor in Washington since the days of shellac records and silent movies, but their efforts have attained fever pitch in the digital era. They have found a friend in Hollings, a lawmaker from a state without a strong presence in either electronics or entertainment. Hollings has become so cozy with Hollywood's top brass that he is now known in some circles as "the Democrat from Disneyland."

Last year, he authored the draconian Security Systems Standards and Certification Act, a piece of legislation yet to be introduced for consideration by the Senate, but which, if passed, would make it illegal to manufacture, import, sell, or even possess electronic equipment capable of unauthorized copying of protected intellectual property—in particular, software, movies, and music recordings. The bill goes so far as to stipulate punishments for violators and to require some vague monitoring capabilities that would report potential violations to a government agency. Members of the US House of Representatives are reportedly less worked up than their senatorial counterparts over the threat to the nation's economy by widespread ownership of computers and CD burners, and seem disinclined at this point to approve legislation that would put them under governmental control. Hollings' high-tech solution may be nothing more than an impetus for a cross-industry agreement on a system that would make piracy more difficult.

On the other hand, it may be a harbinger of things to come. Ostensibly not the sharpest tool in the technological shed, Senator Hollings is unaware that his proposal isn't high-tech enough to be truly effective in the long run. What's really needed to protect Hollywood's profits isn't a way to control hardware, but a way to control consumers. Computers, after all, don't make copies; people make copies.

The week after Eisner, Valenti, and Vadasz appeared in Washington, so did a news item from Boca Raton, Florida, in which 14-year-old Derek Jacobs announced that he would become the first person in the United States to receive an implanted microchip made by Applied Digital Solutions. The VeriChip, as it is called, contains a tiny radio transmitter and bits of code with Mr. Jacobs' identity and medical conditions. The idea is that should he be knocked unconscious, medical personnel could scan his chip and quickly acquire his curriculum vitae. Veterinarians have been doing something similar with show dogs for years—installing subcutaneous ID chips to provide a positive method for identification in case of kidnapping. Derek and his parents, Jeffrey and Leslie, will all receive chips, delivered via wide-bore hypodermics. "Meet the Chipsons," joked Time reporter Lev Grossman.

"The advantage of the chip is that the information is available at the time of need," Jeffrey Jacobs explained. "It would speak for me, give me a voice when I don't have one." The potential medical benefits are undeniable.

Fast-forward a few generations. Implantable chips could be made with Global Positioning System compatibility—some cell phones already are—so that anyone who cared to might know exactly where you were at any moment. No one could ever get lost again.

At some point such chips might be made to interact with the human brain or the vastly complex biochemical feedback mechanism known as the endocrine system. The benefits could be enormous, not only for individual and societal health but also for our economy. An implantable chip, connected to a network supervised by a coalition of governmental, economic, and behavioral specialists could, in just one generation, succeed where thousands of years of moral instruction and rational persuasion have failed.

With properly credentialed and appointed authorities monitoring your every thought and impulse, you'd never again feel the urge to down that extra beer, eat that extra cookie, deduct that doghouse as a home improvement expenditure, or copy that CD to play in your car. National security could be beefed up at marginal expense by requiring implants for all citizens. Refusal to accept the chip, like refusal to swear an oath of allegiance or take a lie detector test, could be interpreted as irrefutable evidence of criminal intent and grounds for permanent incarceration. And just think what it would do for the microchip industry, whose sales were off 40% this past year. The one-chip solution is the cure for what ails us. Senator Hollings, your mission is clear.