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Goodbye VHS, farewell fair use

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MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: 2006 might be remembered as the year the VHS videotape format suffered a fatal blow: Major studios have stopped releasing their movies on VHS. This happened after DVD sales of prerecorded movies surpassed VHS cassettes for the first time three years ago. Commentator and engineer Bill Hammack says we might be losing more than a recording format. We might be losing our culture.

BILL HAMMACK: Back in the 1980s, the Supreme Court ruled VCR makers couldn’t be held liable for copyright infringement.

That gave consumers the right to make personal copies of TV shows and movies using a VCR.

The new digital media that are erasing the VHS format are also erasing our rights.

A few years ago, a Judge issued a catch-22 ruling: Yes, she said, we can copy commercial DVDs too. But no one can sell the software to do that.

In effect, that lets a content producer, the copyright owner, code their own intellectual property law into the DVD.

What’s wrong with what? I mean surely only criminals would like to copy, right?

Well, wait a minute.

The U.S. has a long history of fair use: You have the right to cut out and frame a New Yorker cartoon. Or photocopy a newspaper article.

Fair use also catalyzes innovation and allows us to talk about ourselves, to create culture.

Take an artist of the future. He or she might want to make a statement using a bit of video or sound in a creative work.

But as all media — even books — become digital, every embodiment of thought or imagination becomes subject to commercial control.

DVDs use a technology called Digital Rights Management that allow producers to control when and where you watch.

They can specify whether you view a movie once or 100 times, and they can even restrict the devices you can play it on.

The slow demise of VHS tape risks the literary and intellectual canon of the coming century becoming locked into a digital vault accessible only to a few.

As our country moves forward to regulate digital copying, I urge us all to bear in mind T.S. Eliot’s famous saying. “Good poets borrow; great poets steal.”

THOMAS: Bill Hammack teaches chemical engineering at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana.

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