Originally Published: Wednesday, 6 September 2000 Author: Tom Dominico, Jr.
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Linux and Reverse Engineering

The recent "CueCat" debacle (as publicized on Slashdot recently) has brought Intellectual Property (IP) issues back into the spotlight. Savvy readers may also be familiar with a little piece of code entitled "DeCSS" that has also caused quite a stir. Linux users have the somewhat dubious honor of being among the first to test these murky legal waters, but why? What do these issues mean for the community, and for others as well?

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The recent "CueCat" debacle (as publicized on Slashdot recently) has brought Intellectual Property (IP) issues back into the spotlight. Savvy readers may also be familiar with a little piece of code entitled "DeCSS" that has also caused quite a stir. Linux users have the somewhat dubious honor of being among the first to test these murky legal waters, but why? What do these issues mean for the community, and for others as well?

Let's face it - Linux users love playing with the latest gadgets. They also love hacking (no, not "cracking", "hacking"). Hacking is A Good Thing[TM] - it's fun, it's a workout for your brain, and it provides an outlet for creativity. Naturally, hacking and hardware go together. When someone gives us a new toy, we immediately want to rip its guts apart and figure out how it works, and then come up with uses that no one even imagined for it. Just as some people enjoy tweaking what's under the hood of their car, or fixing up the house, we enjoy hacking.

There is a slight disadvantage to being a Linux user though. For some reason, we are often the last kids on our block to get device drivers for the coolest new hardware. This includes things from, say, DVD players to bar code scanners. No problem, though - you'll recall that I was mentioning how industrious we are. No device driver? No problem. We'll just write our own! Unfortunately, this is where the problems begin.

Now, you would think that the companies who market these devices would be overjoyed. I mean, we are willing to write drivers for their products (for free!), and then release the code! The companies don't have to spend a single dime, and yet they get drivers for free. This allows them to market their product to Linux users, and make more money, and... Well, you get the point. Sounds like a win-win situation, right? BZZZT... Wrong!

It seems that some companies are very, very upset by this practice. In fact, they are so upset that they call out their hired mercenaries (known as "lawyers"). These lawyers hastily fire a volley of legal ammo at those who would dare to write code for the hardware they have purchased, or have been given (seemingly with no strings attached). You see, these companies require that one purchase a license in order to work with their products. Why? Well, unfortunately, it's pretty simple - control.

Now, let me preface this by saying that I'm not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV. I am not familiar with the intricacies of intellectual property law, or copyright law, etc. I am not here to make legal judgments about these issues. Rather, I'm here to explore the reality of the situation. What course of action makes sense for all parties?

Well, let's look at the current situation. Instead of the Linux community happily co-existing with these companies, and shelling out hard-earned money for their wares, many community members are actively boycotting the offenders. Why would anyone want to alienate our demographic? I mean, what a perfect mix of qualities... people who love new hardware and gadgets, and have the money to spend on them. It all seems so simple, and yet so difficult for some people to grasp.

There are deeper issues at stake, however, that making money. Well, perhaps not as far as the companies are concerned... As for the rest of us, though, is anyone else alarmed by the recent turn of events? What ever happened to freedom? If I am given a bar code scanner, seemingly with no strings attached, shouldn't I be able to do with it as I wish? I mean, if I want to turn it into a device to transmit deep space signals based on the bar codes in Forbes Magazine, shouldn't I be allowed to do so? Is it right for some blurb of fine print, which I never even noticed, to restrain my ability to do so?

We are entering a very dark time, where nothing is yours, but rather merely "licensed" to you, to be taken away at someone else's whim. We need to fight this mentality, and the best way to do it is to support free, open projects such as (surprise!) Linux. While the general populace may be content to sit back and have their rights taken away piece by piece, Linux users have seem first-hand the power of freedom, and of the right to use that which is yours in whatever manner you wish. We need to share the benefit of our experience with others. Linux is not just a stable, free OS, but a social statement as well - an example of what happens when you put rights back in the hands of the user. It's a statement that we can't afford not to make, lest we watch our rights erode away, bit by bit.





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