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As Robert Cringely might have put it...

Feb 11, 2000, 03:35 (48 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by A.J. Mayo)

By A.J. Mayo

[ The opinions expressed by authors on Linux Today are their own. They speak only for themselves and not for Linux Today. ]

The fascinating developments in the DVD DeCSS affair have been reported from several angles. However, two points of view seem to have emerged to the exclusion of other important realities. One side claims the other are hackers, bent on pirating copyright DVD material and misappropriating trade secrets in order to do so. The other side claims that reverse engineering is a legitimate expression of free speech, and that in any case, a disk can be pirated simply by doing a bit-for-bit clone, without the need for decryption.

It is quite clear, I think, that the motivation of those who have reverse-engineered the inner workings of the content scrambling system was that darn human curiosity which marks us as a species. And the Internet has made it pretty darn near impossible to pop the genie back into the bottle. So why are the plaintiffs bothering?. At best they would appear to create a bunch of martyrs, and at worst they will lose control of a valuable trade secret.

In fact, the plaintiffs don't seriously believe all this hacker nonsense. They are taking this line for purely pragmatic reasons. Firstly, labelling someone a hacker automatically puts them, in the public mind, somewhere on the far side of the law. Secondly, this case has to be sold by the powerful political lobbyists who run the US to their Congressmen and Senators. These folks can win votes by protecting American jobs and wealth from the hordes of Chinese pirates who will allegedly profit from the hack by creating container-loads of bogus movies.

Remember, these media folks aren't stupid. You didn't get to head up a company like Disney by being anything less than a very astute businessman. Disney and Sony climbed their way to the top over the broken bodies of other, less-nimble companies. They know all about executing a business plan. The purpose of CSS is not to prevent piracy. It is to provide the DVD consortium with a lever by which they can manipulate both the providers of hardware and content.

What CSS lets the consortium do is determine who will make players, and on what terms, and who will provide content. If you can neither encrypt or decrypt the bit stream, you are locked out of both markets. If you purchase a license to use the technology, then the consortium has a way of controlling your actions. Want to sell a player that doesn't honour region codes?. Hmm, maybe we'll revoke your license. Or maybe yes, of course, but you gotta charge three grand for it. Want to produce content - well, you need a license to produce the encrypted bitstream that will go on a disk, or you'll have to deal with someone who does. This is a handy way of exercising future control, is it not?. After all, you might be allowed to produce content only playable in region 1, thus controlling your distribution, or perhaps competitors of the consortium members might find unexpected 'capacity problems' in getting their product onto DVD.

But without CSS, this control vanishes and a great many ricebowls are broken. The consortium always knew that someone would break into the system. They probably planned exactly what they'd do, ahead of time.

Firstly, a few corpses are to be left 'swinging in the wind'. This reminds the rest of us that these guys are serious. Also it hurts the EFF, who are going to face substantial legal costs trying to defend a bunch of 'John Does'. Picking one John Doe in each state, and bringing action there would be a good way of ensuring that the EFF's limited resources, both in manpower and money, are stretched to the limit. After all, the playground bullies are big, powerful fellows. The EFF is kinda like the nerdy kid with a crazy notion of fairness who intervenes in someone else's fight and gets his lights punched out. A bloody nose might make the EFF a lot more reluctant to interfere in the next playground fight.

Secondly, ISPs are going to be seriously spooked about this and a lot of pressure will go onto those foolish enough to continue publishing the material. This pressure will come from the ISP's lawyers, who will point out that the future risk of further lawsuits (from this or other actions) is going to depress the share prices of the ISP, unless they take firm action on content posting. So what you will see is a crackdown on the posting of material which might render the ISP open to legal action, and the instigation of formal policies regarding such material. This is nicely self-policing and a handy thing to have in place for the future.

Thirdly, the US can use this case to leverage their new DMCA copyright act. You can bet that behind the scenes, a lot of political pressure is being put on countries to 'harmonise' their copyright protection with the terms of this act. It would be very desirable to put the status of reverse engineering on a sound legal footing; preferably, one which makes the practice illegal. See the damage which could happen if we don't do this, you can hear the diplomats and trade representatives saying. Of course, countries who bow to US pressure might be able to avoid costly trade sanctions or wild accusations of dumping in the future. Its kind of like protection money paid to the mob to prevent your windows getting smashed. That's why the Norwegians hauled the 15 year old boy in for questioning. He's a minor, but his father might make a good target. In any case, you can bet the US whispered a few words into Norwegian ears. That 'scientific whaling' you folks like to do - shall we take this up in the UN again, or do you do as we say. Your choice....

You would think that making reverse engineering illegal would hurt the US as much as anyone else, since the practice is rife amongst US companies (e.g Informix engineers pull the latest release of the Oracle relational database apart, to see how it works). But of course in an already litigious society, it probably won't make much difference. Lawsuits in the US are launched for objectives often only tangentially related to the suit, viz Caldera vs Microsoft.

So what will happen?. The plaintiffs will probably win. The code will still be out there, and downloadable. But the status of hacking CSS will be perfectly clear, so any players or content produced by exploiting the hack as opposed to properly licensing the technology are clearly contraband and can be confiscated at the border. Sure, there'll be Linux DVD player software, but anyone trying to build and sell a dedicated player based on that will find that the unit can't be sold legitimately. The same goes for content. That, I think, will please the plaintiffs nicely.

Meanwhile, time marches on. DVD audio is the next battlefield. Clearly the encryption system for that will be changed to something much stronger. It will probably still be broken. But the legal precedents have been set, so it will take a *lot* of courage to defy them.

As for us consumers, we'll continue to be led by the nose. Although DVD doesn't record - and, you can bet, recordable DVD units, when they finally arrive, will not allow you to create 'proper' DVD content, playable across regions - and although the picture quality is only marginally superior to VHS, we're buying the players in droves. The next step is for Hollywood to ensure that new content only appears on DVD - or appears months earlier on DVD. So your local Blockbuster has a copy of Toy Story 3, but only on DVD?. Guess its time to buy a player, Martha.

DVD audio is then the next logical step. Yeah, sure, five channel surround sound. Most people just have a couple of ill-placed stereo speakers. Doesn't matter. If the DVD players also play DVD audio as well as CDs, then once they are out there, you can stop producing content on CD. Latest Madonna album?. Gee, we only have that on DVD audio. CDs won't be out till next year. Not much call for them these days... Now you have recovered control over the content channel again. Piracy is still possible but you have much stronger legal sanctions against it. And those damn upstart 'two guys in a bedroom' record companies?. Well, now they're gonna *have* to come talk to Sony because, gee, they can't get a content pressing license any other way, and in any case, the equipment is soooo expensive (after all, you control the hardware manufacturers and one thing you don't do is make cheap recording units - after all, who needs to record five channels of surround sound, anyway). Yup, we're not making the mistakes we made with CDs again. If they wanna make copies, let them use Minidisc. Everyone knows that's not as good as the original, so that's fine. So Martha and Jack can make audio copies to Minidisc to play in the car, and tape the school play on digital video. Which would be of broadcast quality - but they can't copy it onto DVD and send it to their friends. Or if they can, only within the domestic US, cause its region coded.

And CD-RW?. Well, you know, the disks can't be played in a normal CD player. Not enough contrast in the media. Funny how that little technical problem couldn't be solved, eh?. Ah, yes, this is the world the studio execs want!.

Well, folks, this is what US world domination is all about. With things like DMCA and UCITA, the playing field can be tilted even further in their favour. How they must chuckle to hear Europe preening itself as a centre of technological excellence. They know damn well that although Swan, an Englishman, invented the first practical lightbulb filament, and demonstrated his invention a year earlier than Edison, it was Edison who got the credit. And the money. And so it goes... Of course, you could be a Luddite and not buy a DVD player. But realistically, that just makes you a fringe radical, like those strange folks who don't own a TV, or who don't buy genetically modified food, and so forth. (Incidentally, I can think of perfectly good reasons for not buying a TV or eating GM food but the point is that taking this stand, especially in the US, marginalises you. That's not generally a good career move).