An influential security researcher has urged members of parliament to tighten up the law to prevent technology and media companies from abusing patents and digital rights management applications.
Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at Cambridge University, told the All Party Parliamentary Internet Group (APIG) that tougher legislation was needed to stop technology unfairly restricting what a user or customer can do with the products they buy.
"DRM doesn't just affect music," said Anderson. "It also locks your printer cartridge, and eventually it will lock your spare car parts to your car. Governments and courts will need a wide-ranging approach to this issue, and can't just rely on fudges created for individual cases."
APIG is investigating DRM following the controversy caused by Sony's use of rootkit-like software to hide the copy restrictions on some music CDs. This exposed users to the risk of virus attack, Anderson suggested that changes to UK law could help prevent a repeat.
"Parliament could revisit the Unfair Contracts Act. Consumers are finding that they can't get digital content without signing an end user agreement whose terms and conditions are ridiculous," said Anderson.
APIG heard from Lynn Holdsworth, a member of the Web management team at the Royal National Institute of the Blind, who is visually impaired. She explained that she bought an e-book from Amazon only to find that the document's DRM would not work with software she uses to make her computer read aloud.
"Companies could lose their legal protection if they use DRM in such a way," suggested Anderson. "Then, if you don't make your e-book accessible and someone hacks it, he wouldn't go to jail."
Anderson, who founded the Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR), also told APIG that the government could take action so that companies who made unfair use of patents would lose them.
"In the past, if I only licensed my bread-making patent to a miller if he also bought his wheat from my brother then I was liable to lose that patent. That provision was lost in the Competition Act of 2000," explained Anderson.
APIG is due to produce its report into DRM, including recommendations for government, within the next three months.
Anderson also submitted a consultation response to APIG, on behalf of the FIPR. It can be seen here.