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.


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