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Eric S. Raymond — DVDCA and the Big Lie

By Eric S. Raymond

The DVD Control Association (DVDCA) is up in arms. A few weeks
ago, some Linux hackers in Norway cracked the encryption scheme
used for DVD media, producing a DVD decoder called DeCSS. On 27
December 1999, the DVDCA brought suit before a Superior Court judge
in California accusing dozens of defendants and unnamed John Does
of piracy. They sought a restraining order against websites
carrying DeCSS.

The gravamen of their argument was that if DeCSS is allowed to
proliferate, illegal copying of DVDs will become routine. Content
producers (the film and television industry) will be irreparably
injured because the market returns for their products will be
stolen wholesale by pirates.

Much has already been made of the free speech issues this
lawsuit raises. The DVDCA has imperiled its own case by seeking an
injunction not merely against sites that carry DeCSS, but any site
that carries links to the DeCSS carriers. An attorney for the
Electronic Frontier Foundation argued that such a ruling would have
severe chilling effects on free speech on the Web, and that may
well have been the argument that persuaded the court not to grant
an immediate injunction.

The real story here, though, is that the DVDCA’s central
complaint is fraudulent. DVD encryption does nothing to prevent
content piracy. A pirate doesn’t have to know how to decode DVDs to
make bit-for-bit copies of them by the thousands. And no DVD player
can distinguish between a legally distributed original and a
pirated bit-for-bit copy. The amount of protection content
producers get from DVD is exactly zero.

Why is the DVDCA lying? That’s easy — because the lie sounds a
lot better than admitting that DVD is a fraud designed to line the
pockets of a few selected players in the consumer-electronics
industry. The DVDCA’s real issue isn’t protection of the market for
DVD films, it’s control of the market for DVD *players*.

The Linux hackers who broke DVD’s encryption didn’t do it
because they wanted to copy DVDs — nobody needs DeCSS to do
copying! They did it because they wanted to play the DVDs they
legally owned through their Linux machines. And that is what the
DVDCA really wants to prevent; they’re protecting their members’
monopoly on DVD players. The high prices and license fees the DVD
monopoly can charge would collapse if anybody with a PC and
speakers no longer needed a dedicated DVD player or licensed
software.

Content producers, far from being injured, will actually benefit
from DeCSS because it expands their market by making players less
expensive. The content producers owe the DeCSS hackers a favor —
they really ought to be suing DVDCA for cutting into their profits
by rigging the player market!

There’s another reason the DVDCA is lying. A long string of
court cases defends both the right to reverse-engineer around trade
secrets and individuals’ rights to copy media they legally own into
other formats for their personal use. The DVDCA must know that if
they fight on that territory they will lose — so, instead, they’re
hoping that if they blow enough smoke about piracy they can spook
the courts into ignoring both equity and all the legal precedents
in favor of the consumers and the content providers.

John Gilmore once observed that “The Internet interprets
censorship as damage and routes around it.” Equally, the Internet
interprets attempts at proprietary control as threats and mobilizes
to defeat them. Hackers all over the world are responding to the
DVDCA attack by propagating thousands of copies of DeCSS to
websites all over the world, places where no California Superior
Court will ever have jurisdiction. The genie is out of the bottle
and won’t be stuffed back in.

In one particularly telling bit of ironic spin, the OpenDVD
website at http://www.opendvd.org/ is sponsoring
“The Great International DVD Source Code Distribution Contest”.
Four winners demonstrating the most interesting and novel methods
of distributing source code will each receive “a copy of the DVD
movie of their choice about an evil totalitarian society, such as
`1984′ or `Brazil’, so that they can watch the movie and thank God
for their freedom.”

One can almost pity DVDCA. Like the feeble minds behind the
misnamed “Communications Decency Act” in 1996 and the NSA’s
key-escrow power grab back in 1994-95, they’re about to find out
what happens when you try to step on the Internet community’s
liberty. The biter-gets-bit consequences would have been amusing
enough even if they weren’t transparently frauds and liars; as it
is, it should be very entertaining to watch the Internet make them
look like idiots even before the courts chop them into chutney.

Eric S. Raymond