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SIGGRAPH PUBLIC POLICY

Vol.34 No.2 May 2000
ACM SIGGRAPH


Domain Names, Digital Television, CFP2000, ACM Book on Intellectual Property and Third On-Line Survey



Bob Ellis

May 00 Columns
CG Pioneers Conference Report

Public Policy
Previous Public Policy

This column begins with a look at some very controversial topics: virtual violence and virtual pornography, computer graphics and the issues of free speech. Next we’ll look at the possibility of establishing a SIGGRAPH experts database for policy issues. The National Research Council (NRC) is working on the issue of intellectual property and how it relates to computers, science and technology; we present a summary and comments with a reference to their report. It is with great enthusiasm that I announce that SIGGRAPH Public Policy Committee member Myles Losch will be providing regular updates on telecommunications, digital television standards and digital copy protection to readers of this column. For information on Myles please see Computer Graphics 33(2) May 1999, pp. 53. Finally there’s a description of and reference to an ACM conference on usability which may be of interest to computer graphics researchers and practitioners.

- Bob Ellis

Virtual Violence/Pornography

As the realism of computer generated motion and appearance of computer generated human figures improves, it becomes almost possible to provide a virtual version without actually using human subjects. In particular, child pornography is one of the few forms of expression given less than full free speech protection under the United States Constitution. Laws have been passed against both the creation and possession of child pornography because of the potential for harm to the human subjects. The Patrick Naughton case ("Net Star Held in Sex-Solicitation Case Sting: FBI Agents Accuse Infoseek Executive of Using the Web to Arrange Sexual Encounter with a Minor," San Jose Mercury News, September 18, 1999) has given increased visibility to this issue.

It is likely that people who do not work in computer graphics believe that either the day is here or else it will never be here when completely realistic looking and acting human figures can be completely computer generated. But we know differently. With today’s technologies, it is not really feasible to make completely realistic looking and acting human figures, but in a few years it may indeed be possible. Without human subjects, one of the primary reasons for restrictions on child pornography may no longer be valid.

But even today, using motion capture, it is very reasonable to make computer generated human figures move and act very realistically. Note that the humans providing the motion do not have to be the same ages as those depicted in the resulting imagery.

So, is it reasonable to subject virtual child pornography to the same restrictions as classic child pornography? In December 1999, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that part of the 1996 Child Pornography Prevention Act which outlaws the possession of "virtual child pornography" ("Appeals Court Ruling Could Impact Naughton Case," San Jose Mercury News, December 17, 1999). Also, while less of a free speech issue, other socially debatable activities, such as realistically depicted violence against human and other forms of living organisms, may become possible without actually injuring any of the subjects. Computer graphics professionals should be thinking about this issue and be prepared to respond to queries from the general public, policy makers and others.

Committee member Myles Losch further points out that laws such as these, which define and outlaw possession of certain information material as contraband, have a history of being difficult to enforce without intrusive actions from law enforcement as well as other forms of abuse. A reasonable defense, which was used in the Naughton case, is that the defendant might not have had knowledge that the outlawed material was in their possession. Who among us has complete knowledge of everything downloaded to our computer from visiting a particular website?

Experts Database

From time to time, SIGGRAPH is asked to suggest knowledgeable experts in certain technical areas who can provide advice and consultation on policy issues. SIGGRAPH Chair Judy Brown and I have discussed this, and would be willing to create and maintain a database of such information. On the important question of getting potential individuals for the database, Judy and I will do this in consultation with others in the field of computer graphics. People who have comments or who are interested in participating in such an activity should contact me.

National Research Council Intellectual Property Study

A copy of the National Research Council’s (NRC) report on "The Digital Dilemma: Intellectual Property in the Information Age" is available on the National Academy Press (NAP) website (http://books.nap.edu/html/digital_dilemma/). The report is specifically geared towards the U.S. environment, although many of the issues will be of interest in other countries. Numerous computer graphics practitioners either create or use intellectual property (IP), and should be concerned with the issues associated with the use of digital information. The document is approximately 350 pages in length, and costs approximately $40 for the printed version.

Another path to this document leads to a parent directory where there are references to other formats. The address (http://www.nap.edu/books/0309064996/html/) leads to a rather unusual format. While full searching capabilities are available, the document’s pages are all stored as images of approximately fax resolution and cannot be saved or printed as legible copies. In addition, the address (http://www.nap.edu/books/0309064996/pdf_image/) gives access to PDF for all the sections of the report. A statement declares that "The Adobe PDF versions of the chapters of this book are provided without charge to National Academies members and staff. These PDFs are machine-generated from scanned page images, and do not contain embedded text." Despite being a member of neither class, at time of writing this article (February 2000) the PDF versions were available to and printable by me.

The following comments are based on my quick reading of the executive summary and may not be a completely accurate summary of the report. According to the report, the origins of the problem follow from the fact that information in digital form is easy both to access and to copy. Compounding this is the fact that many people do not realize that the simple borrowing of a book from the library calls into play a complex interconnected set of laws, public policy, economics and technology. Ultimately, the number of copies of a piece of intellectual property that might be sold is one!

The report continues by stating that the problem is a complex one given that there are many interested parties each with different social and economic agendas - from content owners whose interests range from achieving as widespread as possible distribution, to those who wish to maximize their economic gain. In addition, laws and practices vary worldwide but networks are global in scope. Publication and private distribution are becoming blurred and the report recommends that the concept of publication be reevaluated.

Observations are made that the use of licensing (as opposed to sale) and technical protection mechanisms for intellectual property are increasing. The report concludes that the use of these techniques means both greater opportunities and a negative impact on public access to information, and recommends that all the affected parties should meet and discuss models for public access which are workable.

Concerned about possible difficulties in providing archival copies of digital information, the report recommends that a task force is chartered to determine a workable system for the deposit of digital files, and that legislation should be enacted to permit copying for archival purposes. The trend towards the commercialization of access to government data leads to the conclusion that copyright protection is acceptable when commercial enterprises add value, and the recommendation that government data should be available at a cost not greater than the direct cost to provide the data (even if there is a commercial value added version).

In the complex area of public use versus private and fair use, the report concludes that such exceptions should continue to be permitted, but the public needs to consider these issues carefully and additional statutory limitations on copyright may be necessary. The report indicates that new business models such as low pricing to reduce incentives for copying, using advertiser support and selling related products and services should be considered.

The report suggests that rights holders consider distribution methods other than the network, such as DVDs and special purpose equipment for particularly sensitive IP. As an aside let me point out that while this changes the context of the problems, it does not solve them because it only transforms them (see next section and past columns on digital copy protection). I believe that overly zealous use of such measures may well drastically limit the appeal of such products in the marketplace.

The report recommends that educational programs on the advantages of IP protection be provided to the public. It further recommends that research be carried out on economic impacts of copyright with special attention to the impacts of illegal commercial copying as opposed to private, non-commercial copying. The report concludes with the recommendations that the notion of copying as the foundation for IP rights be reexamined in the context of U.S. Constitutional goals of "promoting the progress of science and the useful arts," and that legal research is needed into the very important area of temporary reproduction to support the new information infrastructure.

Personally I don’t feel that the report has broken any new ground, but it is a valuable contribution to have the issues addressed and recommendations made in a readily accessible place, and by an organization with strong credentials.

Telecommunications, Digital Television Standards and Digital Copy Protection

Myles Losch

A year ago this column surveyed graphics-friendly broadband network access for homes and small businesses. Now we begin a series of updates to that topic, covering both progress and obstacles in a public policy context.

Wireless Internet access via cellphones has boomed in Japan (especially among fad-prone youth), based both on messaging and on websites customized for the phones’ tiny displays. This success has encouraged imitation elsewhere, and prompted cellular carriers to speed the rollout of broadband ("3G") services based on global standards.

While more graphics-capable than today’s cellphones, 3G models are still limited by screen size. But the wireless infrastructure to support them (at up to 2 Mbit/sec) will be widely available also for fixed links to homes and businesses. Radio frequency allotments vs. demand for these services will bear watching, as they grow over the next decade.

On another broadband front, fiber to the home (or at least to the neighborhood) is gaining new interest among telecom carriers. While all-fiber nets are mostly confined to new buildings, phone and cable operators are using optical fiber to remove broadband bottlenecks in their older infrastructure. A good survey can be found online at (www.techreview.com/articles/ma00/hecht.htm).

The planned AOL-Time Warner merger has revived the U.S. cable television ‘open access’ controversy. AOL backed away from its former demand that cable nets be open by law to all Internet providers, but offered a similar policy in its quest for merger approval.

To the north, Canada’s 1998 open access policy is to take effect this year, and is a focus of one session (organized in cooperation with the ACM SIGGRAPH Public Policy Committee) at ACM’s CFP2000 public policy conference (www.cfp2000.org) being held in Toronto. Look for more on this in a future column.

Back in the U.S., the FCC rejected a challenge (which we first noted in November 1999) to its standard radio signal format for terrestrial broadcasting of digital television. But the commission will monitor progress by digital TV set makers as they seek to fix the indoor reception flaws that the challengers demonstrated.

Motion picture executives, meanwhile, claimed that FCC chair William Kennard lacked authority to impose standards (as he threatened) for copy protection of digital TV on cable networks, if industry could not agree on this by April 1, 2000. Faced with a possible lawsuit, Kennard appeared to back down. But that left digital TV’s prospects in doubt, since most Americans get TV over cable. VCR and TV set makers’ views of the controversy can be found at www.hrrc.org.

Finally, the music and movie industries launched a flurry of copyright litigation starting in late 1999, which could strongly influence the on-line multimedia environment. The issues include free expression, the right to program and to reverse engineer and the extent of government power over the Internet.

Targets of these lawsuits, on which we plan to say more in future columns, include the iCraveTV video streaming service, MP3.com’s on-line music library, the Napster music-sharing software and DeCSS, a DVD-video decryption program which led vendors to delay the release of DVD-audio products.

Readers interested in these cases can find useful on-line background information in the National Academy Press book reviewed elsewhere in this column (http://books.nap.edu/html/digital_dilemma/). Part of a recent law (the DMCA) used in the federal DeCSS suits is analyzed by UC Berkeley’s Prof. Pamela Samuelson at http://sims.berkeley.edu/~pam/papers/Samuelson_IP_dig_eco_htm.htm.

ACM Conference on Universal Usability

On November 16 and 17, 2000, the ACM will hold a conference on universal usability. Quoting from the conference website (www.acm.org/sigchi/cuu): "The starting trajectory of the next millennium can be characterized largely by the progress of computing and communications technology. Cheaper and faster processors, storage and networks combined with better user interfaces have spawned the incredible growth of the Internet and related services. Too often, however, system complexity, incompatible software versions and file formats, confusing interfaces and inadequate attention to diverse users lead to confusion, frustration and failure. It’s time to address this challenge." The conference is being sponsored by SIGCHI in cooperation with a number of other organizations including SIGGRAPH and will be held in the Washington D.C. area.

The conference is planned to be more than a technical conference with substantial public policy content and attendees. Accordingly, papers are being sought in the areas of:

  •  Solutions to address the politics, policies and economics of universal usability and evaluations of those solutions
  •  Solutions to accommodate variations in hardware, software and network access as well as empirical evaluations of these systems
  •  Proposed solutions to accommodate users who differ in attributes such as skill, knowledge, age, gender, disabilities, literacy, languages, cultures and income and evaluations of such solutions
  •  Solution processes for better understanding users, contexts and tasks.




Robert Ellis is Chair of SIGGRAPH’s Public Policy Committee. When last gainfully employed (1993), he was Sun Microsystems’ representative on the Computer Systems Policy Project’s (CSPP) Technology Committee and also co-managed Sun’s external research program. Before that, Ellis held computer graphics software development and management positions with Sun, GE-Calma, Atari, Boeing and Washington University (St. Louis).
The copyright of articles and images printed remains with the author unless otherwise indicated.