A government program to let artists go online to register certain works for copyright protection would mandate the use of Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer browser, raising charges that the effort is limiting the open use of the World Wide Web.
Experts argue that the plan by the U.S. Copyright Office is setting a bad precedent and should work with all browsers. Common technical standards are designed to ensure that such programs are universally accessible, just as electrical lines are not limited to certain appliance brands or highways to certain cars.
The copyright policy, set to take effect in October, would allow certain types of works to be "preregistered" for protection before they are released in the marketplace. The goal, set out by Congress, is to discourage piracy of movies and other digital entertainment, which often are stolen shortly before their release and circulated for free on the Internet.
Copyright Office officials said the requirement to use Microsoft's browser to file the registration was not intended to favor one company or product over others. Internet Explorer is used by a large majority of computer users, but competitors include Safari by Apple Computer Inc., Netscape by Time Warner Inc. and open-source browsers such as Firefox.
Julia Huff, the office's chief operating officer, said the firm hired to manage the registration system and database, Siebel Systems Inc., could not guarantee that online forms using other browsers would work with its system.
She said there is not sufficient time to push Siebel to alter its system before the Oct. 24 launch date. Because Internet Explorer is the dominant browser, the office decided to require its use to avoid potential difficulty for registrants.
The office also is considering whether it should allow registration via fax or mail as well as by computer, Huff said. "We did not know until [recently] that the system might be limited," she said.
But the decision is being sharply criticized by technologists working to standardize the software code that powers the Internet's plumbing.
"It's a replay of the bad old days when you built a Web site according to the behavior of an individual browser," said Daniel J. Weitzner, a policy official with the World Wide Web Consortium, which sets technology standards for the Web.
Timothy Berners-Lee, the creator of the Web and a director of the consortium, said standards are increasingly important as people use an evolving array of handheld devices to access the Internet.
He said Siebel Systems, which is not a member of the consortium, could easily develop a tool to ensure that other browsers would work with its system.
Stacey Schneider, Siebel Systems' director of technology product marketing, said that other browsers might work with the registration system but that the company could not guarantee it.
She said Siebel follows guidelines published by the consortium but does not certify that its products comply with all its standards.
Instead, Schneider said, the company tests its products with individual browsers that are most used by its customers.
Chris Hofmann, director of engineering at the Mozilla Foundation, which makes the Firefox browser, said the government should think twice before giving contracts to firms that do not adhere to common standards.
"Otherwise, they are going to run into these kinds of embarrassing situations," he said.
Hofmann said that if an application supports only the latest version of Microsoft's browser, it could disenfranchise 20 to 30 percent of computer users.
Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a digital policy group, said the government should exert tougher oversight of technology contracts before they are awarded by agencies to ensure that the maximum number of tools and devices can be used.