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Eric Raymond: Two Faces and Big Lies

Jul 30, 2000, 18:59 (59 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Eric Raymond)

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By Eric Raymond

DeCSS. Napster. These are two faces of a revolution -- a technological wave that is sweeping through the media industry, theatening to upset billion-dollar business models as though they were cockleshell boats. As with every power shift in progress, these technologies have attracted vocal partisans and bitter enemies.

Also as usual, the first casualty of ideological warfare is the truth. The kids chanting "power to the people" and the corporate executives blustering about piracy are both oversimplifying some deep and complex issues. And both sides -- yes, I said, *both* sides -- are telling some Big Lies, trying to get their propaganda positions accepted as truth by endless repetition in tones of righteous indignation.

Let's look at some of those lies. Here's our first: that the DVD Copy Control Association's attempt to suppress DeCSS lawsuit is or was ever about piracy. Yes? If that's so, why wasn't the DVDCCA up in arms about DVD-ripper programs eighteen months ago? It's come out in the 2600 trial in New York that the DVDCCA knew about these programs perhaps as far back as that -- and the rippers do exactly what the DVDCCA says DeCSS is for, which is allow people to make digital copies of DVDs that can be shipped over the Net and burned into writeable CD-ROMs.

Even more to the point, if piracy is the issue why isn't the DVDCCA trying to outlaw pirate stamping presses instead of software? Forget kids making one-at-a-time copies on their PCs with DVD rippers or DeCSS or anything else; the real revenue threat to the movie studios is factories churning out thousands of CDs a month. The real pirates laugh at content scrambling, because they go straight to the physical level and copy the pattern of pits and bumps on the disk, encryption and all.

So what's the truth? The truth is that the war on DeCSS was never about piracy at all. What it's really all about protecting the DVD player monopoly -- and the DVDCCA, which is run by a cartel of consumer-electronics companies, has been playing Jack Valenti and the Motion Picture Association of America for patsies. If the MPAA hadn't been grabbed by its territorial instincts and stopped thinking, it might have figured out by now that cheaper DVD players (and free DVD-playing software on PCs) actually mean a bigger market for the DVDs themselves.

Yes, that's right; content scrambling is actually *hurting the studios' profits*. But if they're clueless about this, they're at least consistently clueless; they were wrong in pretty much the same way about the VCR.

So much for corporate con-jobs. Now let's look at another kind -- the kind that masquerades as populist idealism. Here's our second Big Lie: that Napster doesn't rip off the artists. The people pushing this line often claim that it's OK because musicians don't make money on album sales anyway, the real money is in concerts and tie-ins. Courtney Love gave this crowd a lot of ammunition in a July Salon Magazine piece -- a blisteringly funny rant which dissected in detail all the scabrous scams that record companies routinely use to rip off the bands who actually make the music they sell.

It was all true. But it's only half the story -- and I know both sides, because I was a rock musician once and I've got friends who are still. I've been in a couple groups, recorded on a few albums. I've been there, playing bars for peanuts and desperately hoping to get scouted by some toothy-grinned A&R guy so we could at least get ripped off somewhere higher up on the food chain. And you know what? To the little guys and indie bands out there, CD and tape sales can make a hell of a lot of difference. Like, between playing and practicing full time or having to hack a day job. Courtney, three platinum records later, doesn't have to care about *that* angle any more.

There's a basic disconnect in the pro-Napster position. OK, so let's suppose the whole recording game is a total rip-off and the artists get nothing from album sales. You're going to fix that, *how*? By ripping off the record companies? Excuse me, I missed something there. Not one starving artist is ever going to get a nickel more money because you *didn't* pay for his album.

But even that misses the real point. The real point is that by "sharing" without the artist's consent, *you deprive him of the right to control and dispose of his work*. Forget the record companies; for this issue they are just big bloated red herrings, a noxious excuse, a convenient distraction. The real question is this: are you going to support the artists, or steal away the few shreds of autonomy they might have left?

It's almost superfluous to add that the Napster guys themselves are monstrous hypocrites, as Lee Gomes has well described in a recent Wall Street Journal article. Napster's inventor, that cute rebel kid Shawn Fanning, is basically a mascot they trot out for photo-ops; the real decisions come from Fanning's uncle and an unsavory cabal of fat-cat investors -- and that's where the money goes, too. And those are the guys who will threaten and sue you if you feel like "sharing" *Napster's* intellectual property -- like, say, by reverse-engineering your owner Napster-protocol client or server.

And yes, I know that Gnutella is much cooler and will bypass the central-point-of-suckage model that Napster has now. And I know that Napster-like technology has lots of legitimate uses. But still. There's a basic difference between the ethics of DeCSS, as it's normally used, and Napster or Gnutella as they are normally used. DeCSS is mainly about how you use your own property -- *your* DVD, *your* machine. Napster and Gnutella, are mainly about how you use *other peoples'* property.

We in the hacker culture have a special responsibility, and a special need, to be very clear about the difference. We have a special responsibility because we are the king toolmakers of the digital age; our work and our values will have a large part in shaping the future of communications and media everywhere. We have a special need because the way these intellectual-property issues work out will come back to haunt us more than most if we get then wrong.

One of our possible futures, if the press and the courts and the public decide we got it badly enough wrong, is an Intellectual Property Enforcement Association that's a worse nightmare than the DEA or the BATF -- jackbooted thugs with no-knock warrants battering down peoples' doors to seize their computers on suspicion of information theft.

Our community must speak out on the basic differences between "our property" and "other peoples' property", loudly enough to be heard and clearly enough so the press and courts and public can understand. We must help form a new consensus that is staunch for liberty while condemning theft. Otherwise, we may well get that grim future -- and deserve it.