The US government has finally decided to make low resolution images of their new $50 and $20 bills available for artists and students who are discovering their scanners prohibit such operation. The US government is even entertaining individual requests on a case-by-case basis for higher quality images of currency for use in commercial art projects (click here for link to article).
Here’s a quick summary. The consortium of central banks (which US is a member) developed a system to prevent imaging devices and computers from being used to counterfeit bank notes. If one scans a bank note on a device that incorporates such protections, the user is directed to www.rulesforuse.org. Clicking on the “USA” link directs the browser to the US Secret Service website outlining the rules for color reproductions of currency under the Counterfeit Detection Act of 1992.
The parallel with copyright law (and anti-circumvention technology in copyrights) is that the technology prohibits the user from making copies of protected material for legitimate uses. The most important difference is that the US Government has just begun to recognize the legitimate uses of currency and has made PDF copies of the new $20 and $50 bills available for download. These are low-resolution images with the word “SPECIMEN” printed prominently in red on both sides of the images and would make very poor counterfeits.
Although digital rights management technology is also used to prevent unauthorized copies of protected works, the technology has failed to accommodate the legitimate uses of the works. Any circumvention of technology that is designed to prevent unauthorized access to protected works brings liability under the DMCA. An example I’ll use is the CSS system used to protect DVD content. With a CSS-protected DVD, it’s clear that one cannot make fair use of video clips from the DVD without decrypting it and running a risk of prosecution under the DMCA’s anti-circumvention provision. However, I am not aware of any instances where the content owner of the DVD is willing to offer a low-resolution video clips of protected content or make some other accommodation for fair use/legitimate purposes.
It’s important to note that this is not a discussion on the effectiveness of the anti-counterfeiting system used by the consortium of banks but rather a discussion on whether it’s possible or feasible to implement such a system in the copyright realm. A Google search will reveal that many savy computer users have discovered the string “www.rulesforuse.org” in their scanner drivers and it’s even possible it may be (or already have been) hacked by others.
The interesting position the US Government adopts certainly renews debate on whether one may strike a balance on preventing the unauthorized copying of material and allowing certain copies to be used for legitimate/artistic purposes. It certainly renews discussion on whether the DMCA is too restrictive and whether the DMCA should accommodate fair use/legitimate use of protected content. Should protected content be made available for fair use/legitimate use? Is degrading the quality of the material sufficient to protect the interests of the content owners? If so, how much degradation is necessary? (Note that Sony Japan recently decided not to implement lock-down on CDs because it degrades audio quality when played on a computer or simply doesn’t play on computers—where it may potentially be copied/ripped for fear of consumer backlash). (Click here for link to article). If such a system is implemented for copyright law, what are the costs associated with enforcing that system and who should bear them? Finally, are the content owners too extreme in protecting their rights? Counterfeiting US currency (depending on magnitude of the operation and quality of the product) may potentially cost the government large sums of money. Yet the government recognizes and accommodates the user who, for technological reasons, cannot make scans of US currency for legitimate purposes.