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Tech > Netropolis

DVD donnybrook

 

Published 2/23/2000

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If you recently bought a DVD player, you might not be aware of the enormous legal drama your shiny new copy of The Matrix or Scream 2 has produced. There’s a battle over how people play back these disks. And the Internet’s independent programming community is caught in the middle, fighting big business for their right to write code.

Like any decent thriller, it’s good to know the backstory first. DVD (Digital Versatile Disc) was developed in the mid-’90s by a consortium of entertainment and electronics companies. Unlike the bulky laser discs that preceded it, DVD seemed like the perfect video medium: Small, cheap to produce, and – of course – encrypted to prevent copying.

Understandably, the industry loves DVD. Says DVD guru Jim Taylor in his comprehensive DVD FAQ, "DVD has widespread support from all major electronics companies, hardware companies and movie and music studios."

Consumers like it too – they can even play DVDs on their computers. In the three years since it was introduced, DVD has become the most successful consumer electronics product ever.

Now let’s meet our protagonist – Jon Johansen, a 16-year-old Norwegian kid with a knack for programming. Johansen is a member of the Web’s huge tech community, and he loves Linux.

What’s Linux? It’s an open-source operating system – a no-cost communal competitor to Windows that Web code heads are constantly tweaking and improving ... for free. Since Linux was developed without corporate involvement, it’s become almost a religion to some programmers.

Now here’s our plot twist: The DVD industry doesn’t offer a Linux-based DVD player. So in true Linux fashion, Johansen and his online pals wrote a program that bypasses the DVD encryption, letting Linux users watch the DVDs they own. Dubbing his software "DeCSS," Johansen put the free program on his Web page. Within a few weeks, it began popping up on U.S.-based sites as well.

Enter the Motion Picture Association of America, bearing summons by the fistful. Last month, the MPAA and several major film studios filed suit in U.S. court against dozens of Web site owners who posted DeCSS on their pages. While they can’t directly sue Johansen – he’s in Norway – they allege these Web site owners have violated trade secrets and are encouraging piracy.

The Web’s tech community is outraged. Pro-DeCSS comments ("Writing code is free speech!") flood the message boards on popular tech sites such as Slashdot (slashdot.org) and the new opendvd.org. Savvy tech writers begin to raise an interesting theory: The MPAA isn’t really concerned about piracy at all. They simply don’t want anyone giving away unlicensed DVD players.

"(The MPAA) made a lot of money licensing their secret recipe to DVD player makers," writes fool.com’s Tom Landley. "Now, nobody needs them anymore."

Soon, another truth is revealed: Most "official" DVD players won’t play DVD movies bought in foreign countries, but DeCSS will. In fact, the film industry often sets DVD movie prices country by country to maximize profits.

Meanwhile, back in Norway ... our story takes a sinister turn. The Norwegian police’s economic crime unit arrests Johansen. They confiscate his computer and question him on code-cracking charges. In a salon.com interview, MPAA president Jack Valenti pleads innocent: "We were not involved with that."

But the tech community isn’t convinced. "Why would the MPAA invade someone’s home in another country?" asks one coder.

The word goes around, and sympathetic coders begin posting the DeCSS program worldwide. Tech sites like 2600.com track the progress, eventually displaying hundreds of links to DeCSS. The Silicon Valley Linux Users Group has a contest for the best way to spread DeCSS online. One contestant hides the code within simple Web page images.

Impassioned treatises are uploaded ("A world in which a whole community is in violation of a law is a world in which the government can arbitrarily arrest anyone," writes an angry Jason Kroll on the popular linuxjournal.com).

Meanwhile, copyleft.net begins selling clothing emblazoned with the DeCSS source code. And best of all, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (eff.org), a nonprofit organization dedicated to online individual rights, assigns pro bono lawyers to handle the U.S. case. One defendant even shows up in court wearing a Copyleft T-shirt.

The story hasn’t ended yet. But it has raised some deep questions. Can copy protection be copyrighted? Is program code actually speech? Should code be protected as free speech? How the hell did the MPAA’s power reach into Norway?

A few weeks ago, a New York judge granted a preliminary injunction against several defendants. Future trials are sure to test the validity of the decision, but until then, it’s technically illegal to post DeCSS on an American server. Jon Johansen’s fate is still up in the air, but he’s already a Web folk hero.

Stay tuned ... unlike most Hollywood films, the sequel promises to be more intriguing than the first act. Just be careful where you watch the show.

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