Wednesday, July 27, 2005

A Brief History of DVD Copying (Part 2)

The last few months of 1999 and the following year saw a flurry of litigation around the DeCSS source code. In December, seventy-one individuals were sued for distributing the DeCSS source code, citing the new American DMCA law. Strangely enough a large majority of those distributing the code were not American, with the code being hosted on foreign servers. Indeed the lawsuits and threats were merely meant to intimidate people to remove the code regardless of its legality. The opposite happened as the Internet community rallied to spread the source code as quickly as possible.

Figure 1: DeCSS code printed on a t-shirt

The motion picture industry fought back. Most famously they were able to convince Norwegian police to raid the home of 16-year-old Jon Johansen, who was part of the original team that created DeCSS. He and his father were accused of copyright infringement, a charge that carries fines and prison terms of up to two years. Norwegian state prosecutor Inger Marie Sunde was quoted as saying:

"It is a huge problem for those who produce copyrighted material to protect their interests when it is distributed over the Internet. At the same time we want to crack down on the hero worship of the hackers. Even though the accused is only 16 years old, he seems to be aware of what he has done."

In America lawsuits, and threats of lawsuits, persisted. The hacker magazine 2600 was taken to court for publishing the DeCSS source code on its web site*. After the judge issued a preliminary injunction against posting the code, the publisher of 2600 quickly took down the code and replaced it with hundreds of links to other web sites where DeCSS could be obtained. Never shying away from a fight, the motion picture industry sued again, this time for simply linking to the code.

The DeCSS court cases would become the first to define rights in a digital age. Was computer source code not a form of freedom of speech? Could the act of posting a link to a web site be illegal? How far could a country's laws extend? And most importantly, would lawsuits stunt the fast paced growth of the Internet?

The Brief History of DVD Copying (Part 3) is now available...

* Ironically the lawsuit's court documents, which were publicly distributed, included the source code as well. This mishap was quickly corrected a few days later.

Monday, July 25, 2005

A Brief History of DVD Copying (Part 1)

The source code for a program called DeCSS was anonymously posted to the Internet in late October 1999. While it was a very small program, and totally unusable in the form it was presented, it did spell out the trade secret used to encrypt data on movie DVDs. This algorithm supposedly had been obtained by "reverse-engineering" a popular PC DVD player. The purpose of the DeCSS program was to remove the encryption on a DVD so that it could be watched using a free player on the Linux operating system*. At the time no such player existed because the association that controlled the secret DVD decryption algorithm (the DVD CCA) would only license it to companies that paid thousands of dollars a year for a licence -- and the authors of the Linux DVD player not only didn't want to pay, they wanted to publish the source code for the algorithm for everyone to see. This didn't bode well with the industry.

Figure 1: Part of the DeCSS source code

Both the DVD Copy Control Association and the Motion Picture Association (MPAA) tried to stop the spread of the DeCSS source code in the weeks following its release. First they claimed the algorithm was a trade secret. After receiving little success with this argument they changed gears and said the code was a violation of a new American law called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). This act made it illegal to create something which circumvents an access control device, in the case of DVDs, the movie's encryption. As the DMCA was very new, the DVD DeCSS lawsuits would be the first of many to challenge this seemingly unbalanced law. The most famous of the lawsuits made a celebrity of a 16 year old Norwegian named boy named Jon Johansen, who has became synonymous with DeCSS.

The Brief History of DVD Copying (Part 2) is now available...

* It should be pointed out as soon as possible that the encryption used on DVD movies does not prevent them from being copied. Think of it this way.. If I wrote this entire posting in Latin, then you could, even though you don't understand Latin, copy it to your own web site. What you couldn't do however is understand it. So while you can copy an encrypted DVD movie, you wouldn't be able to play it without using a licensed DVD player which could decrypt the movie (translate the Latin back to English in our analogy). The DVD CCA simply didn't like the idea that anyone would be able to create their DVD player (especially one that would bypass region codes, allow you to fast forward through warnings, etc.).