2005-11-24 1107 Opinion: == It's fun to stay at the DMCA == #define m(i)(x[i]^s[i+84])<< unsigned char . . .

It’s fun to stay at the DMCA

 #define m(i)(x[i]^s[i+84])<<
 unsigned char x[5],y,s[2048];main(n){for(read(0,x,5);read(0,s,n=2048);write(1,s,n))if(s[y=s[13]%8+20]/16%4==1){int i=m(1)17^256+m(0)8,k=m(2)0,j=m(4)17^m(3)9^k

DeCSS code by Charles M. Hannum

That little snippet of line noise above is probably the most important piece of computer code you’re going to see today. For most of you, I’m guessing it’s also going to be the only code you see today :)

That program does something very important, something that strikes at the heart of free speech and fair use. And it’s highly illegal. You are looking at the digital equivalent of coccaine, girls and boys.

What is does is remarkable simple though it has far reaching consequences for all of us. Put simply, it decrypts DVDs. It’s one of many different programs that will do this, but this one is among the smallest.

Most people don’t even realise their DVDs are encrypted, but they are. They’re encrypted so that only licensed players can play them. Without this code, you couldn’t read the DVD in your computer, and you certainly couldn’t copy it. Movie piracy is of course, illegal – but copying a disk for backup purposes isn’t. Neither is keeping a copy in a different place, provided it’s owner the who’s watching it, and only one copy is being used at any time. At least, that’s what “Fair Use” legislation says. It’s the set of laws that allow us to create mp3s from our CDs (despite Sony’s terrible attempts to stop us) and record TV programmes to watch later. It’s all about personal use and what’s fair. It’s a legal right we all have that says we can do what we want with things we own because they’re ours. The only thing we can’t do is copy something and sell the copy. That’s piracy.

Seems pretty clear to me – until the Digital Millenium Copyright Act came into being. This is the law in the US that makes this piece of code illegal. The DMCA essentially allows companies to control and limit how their products (be it DVDs, CD, computer games, ebooks – anything digital) can be used. The basic premise of the law was to stop large scale software piracy, though it has repeatedly been abused by corporations to lock their products down and take away any Fair Use you may otherwise have. The DMCA is also unusual in that it sets no financial limits to the amount of damages a company can claim. In effect that means that if someone (fairly) makes a backup of a computer game – or even just tells someone how to do it – then they can claim multi-million dollar damages. This threat alone has time and again stopped people from providing information – like the DeCSS code above – that should otherwise be in the public domain.

The DMCA also has teeth – as shown be the case of Dmitry Sklyarov. From that site:

Dmitry helped create the Advanced eBook Processor (AEBPR) software for his Russian employer Elcomsoft. According to the company’s website, the software permits eBook owners to translate from Adobe’s secure eBook format into the more common Portable Document Format (PDF). The software only works on legitimately purchased eBooks. It has been used by blind people to read otherwise-inaccessible PDF user’s manuals, and by people who want to move an eBook from one computer to another (just like anyone can move a music CD from the home player to a portable or car).
Dmitry was arrested July 17, 2001 in Las Vegas, NV, at the behest of Adobe Systems, according to the DOJ complaint, and charged with distributing a product designed to circumvent copyright protection measures (the AEBPR).

While Elcomsoft was found Not Guilty of commiting any crime, the case and repercussions continue. Both this case, and many others like it highlight the fact that the DMCA is an over-abused law; it’s badly flawed and serves only to protect the profits of the company rather that the right of the consumer.

The DMCA is the law that Sony are hiding behind. It’s the law that gives them the right to silently install software on your computer when you put one of their music CDs in. It’s the law that says that that did nothing wrong. The fact that the software it installs seriously affects you computer’s security doesn’t matter. Under the DMCA, they were within their legal rights.

Hopefully, this farce should change things. Lawsuits are already taking place in America against Sony for their actions. With luck and a good trade wind, this will make companies think twice about invoking the DMCA in future.

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