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 user 2003-11-28 at 9:46:00 am Views: 57
  • #8018

    Digital copyright law protects more than music

    Ed Swartz, a self-described “old guy,” is a canny North Carolinian who’s been in heavy manufacturing since Eisenhower was president. Alloys for the auto industry, mostly. Come the late ’80s, he needed something for his youngest son to run, so they jumped into the ground floor of a business few think about until the copier malfunctions: remanufacturing laser printer toner cartridges. His company, Static Control Components Inc., makes the replacement gears, springs and drums that go inside the cartridges when they break down. Pretty straightfoUntil last winter, that is, when his company found itself in the most unlikely of positions — on the same side of the courtroom as unauthorized Internet song-sharing sites, such as Kazaa, Grokster and Morpheus.

    What links a southern office supply manufacturer and a global next-generation Internet technology? A wafer-thin computer chip not much larger than a fingernail and a law unfamiliar to most: the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

    Passed in 1998, the act is designed to protect copyrighted works in an age when the material easily can be illegally copied and distributed over the Internet. The music industry uses the act to sue Internet song-swappers it maintains are violating copyright law. But another provision of the law — Section 1201 — expressly prohibits individuals from circumventing technological measures erected by copyright holders to protect their works.

    Ever since, businesses that make products as diverse as voting machines, electronic pets and garage-door openers have turned to the law to protect their digital turf. Lexmark International Inc., one of the world’s largest printer companies, joined the parade last December when it cited the law to sue Static Control.

    Lexmark alleged that the company illegally copied some of the code used by computer chips in Lexmark cartridges to enable the remanufactured cartridges to work.

    The chips monitor the level of toner and tell users when it is running low. More important, they make the cartridges compatible with the printer — if the two do not execute an electronic “secret handshake” activated by the chip, the copier will not work.

    By figuring out how to emulate that handshake, Static Control circumvented Lexmark’s ability to protect its copyrighted works, Lexmark’s attorneys argued. In February, Lexmark won an injunction that stopped Static Control from making its chips.

    Static Control countered that it copied only 56 bytes of code in the Lexmark chip, which it should be allowed to do under the fair-use provisions of copyright law. Static Control said many industries do the same when they manufacture products that need to be compatible with other systems — the “aftermarket” that makes wiper blades for cars, video-game cartridges for game consoles and so on.

    Static Control asked the US Copyright Office for an exception to the law that would help clear the way for it to make chips that would be compatible with Lexmark printers. The Copyright Office denied the exception in a ruling issued Oct. 27, saying that existing exceptions in the law may cover the issue.

    American University copyright law professor Peter A. Jaszi, who led a law professors’ amicus brief siding with Static Control, called the Copyright Office’s ruling “disappointing” but said the decision did give the company some ammunition when it goes to court. “I think the Static Control lawyers are in a position to make a good argument” that their product should be permitted under the law, Jaszi said.

    Static Control is appealing the injunction in Cincinnati’s US Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit; the company cannot manufacture Lexmark-compatible cartridges unless the injunction is lifted. A ruling is expected within six months. Static Control has also filed a $100 million antitrust lawsuit against Lexmark in North Carolina. Should his company lose in court, Swartz envisions a world of monopolies that would make turn-of-the-century Standard Oil blush. He predicts deals between automakers and tiremakers, for instance, that would put copyright-protected chips in tires to prevent a car from starting unless it was fitted with automaker-approved tires. Imagine, for instance, if Toyotas would run only on Goodyear tires, he said. What would become of Michelin, Cooper, Pirelli and other tiremakers?