Originally Published: Friday, 28 January 2000 Author: Rob Bos
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

The DVD Cartel

I suppose I should talk about interesting news this week. Perhaps I should talk about the recent release of Mozilla M13, or maybe I should talk about Sun's recent decision to give away Solaris for free via download. Or I could talk about the recent attitude of the mainstream press towards Linux. Now that's an interesting subject. As recently as last year, having a piece about Linux on CNN was a "Big Thing." Yet today, such a mention is greeted with collective yawning as we tromp down the path to world domination. Still, given recent events, I'd probably be ignored. And being ignored sucks. So I'm going to join the bandwagon and yell at everyone's favourite target this week: the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) and their response to DeCSS over the last couple of months....

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I suppose I should talk about interesting news this week. Perhaps I should talk about the recent release of Mozilla M13, or maybe I should talk about Sun's recent decision to give away Solaris for free via download. Or I could talk about the recent attitude of the mainstream press towards Linux. Now that's an interesting subject. As recently as last year, having a piece about Linux on CNN was a "Big Thing." Yet today, such a mention is greeted with collective yawning as we tromp down the path to world domination. Still, given recent events, I'd probably be ignored. And being ignored sucks. So I'm going to join the bandwagon and yell at everyone's favourite target this week: the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) and their response to DeCSS over the last couple of months.

Given the current climate over the pirating of DVDs -- especially in Asia, where distribution channels are most well established -- it's hard to understand why the MPAA is so energetically and enthusiastically pursuing a group of people who, to all accounts, simply want the ability to play their legally acquired DVDs on their home computers. A great deal more people than those in the Linux and computing communities are affected, of course. However, the free software communities, with their habitual push for freedom, have been a large part of the push to fight the DVDCCA on territory that they can't hope to touch.

Let's review.

July 15, 1999: A post to the popular news site Slashdot mentions a little program that looks as if it may be capable of making the viewing and decoding of encrypted DVDs for viewing and copying a trivial matter. Many people were excited about this. What's this, the ability to play DVDs under Linux, where before only Windows and MacOS had clients available? Yay!

November 5, 1999: The LiViD project, among other Web sites, are shut down by ISPs at the request of an unknown person over "copyright issues." This is in hindsight proven to be the DVD Copy Control Association (DVDCCA).

December 29, 1999: The DVDCCA files for an injunction to legally prevent people from linking to information about DeCSS and similar projects. Several thousand people immediately download and mirror the DeCSS algorithm. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is requested to fight on behalf of these people, and is immediately swollen with new members. Several people show up at the courthouse to attend the proceedings. Printouts and disks containing DeCSS are handed out at the doors, to the plaintiff attorneys, and anyone else who wants a copy. The judge dismisses the motion to put a restraining order on Web sites that would disallow the linking to information on DeCSS. Yay!

January 14, 2000: A group of corporations including Columbia Pictures, Disney, Metro-Goldwyn Meyer, Paramount, TriStar, 20th Century Fox, United Artists, Warner Bros, Time-Warner -- also known as the MPAA -- file two US Federal lawsuits to "[strike] a blow today in defense of the future of American movies" against a motley crew of DVD developers spanning many US states. Electronic Frontier Foundation membership jumps again, and emotions run extremely high.

January 24, 2000: The government of Norway orders the 16-year-old author of DeCSS arrested. He and his father are brought in for a six hour "question period."

Why would the DVDCCA be fighting DeCSS to such an enthusiastic degree? Why are they doing sweeping indictments of hundreds of people? Why are they requesting Web site administrators to take down DVD-related Web sites? Why are they, as some people would have it, pulling a few strings in Norway, so to speak? It's a little too convenient. If the police can pressure this person into sign a little paper that says he illegally reverse-engineered CSS, then suddenly the California case actually has some basis in the fantasy world that is US law regarding technology issues.

But why, given that piracy of DVDs is relatively trivial already, and given that the commoditisation of the technology is inevitable in any case, is the DVDCCA making such a big deal of this? After all, it's simply the cracking of what I am assured is a relatively simple encryption scheme, and does not make DVD copying markedly easier. Even distribution of DVDs over the Internet is almost trivially possible given the resources and hardware, though thoroughly impractical.

Ockham's razor cuts that hypothesis to ribbons. The DVDCCA is not trying to stop piracy. That's already too far gone, and harmless in any case. Piracy expands DVDs into markets that normal distribution channels simply can not touch, and over time, ways to exploit those opened-up markets will follow.

As many people see it -- including Eric Raymond, a prominent free software advocate -- there is only one relatively simple inference that can be reached. The DVD cartel is not attempting to stop piracy, nor protect its trade secrets. It is trying to maintain its hold on how, where, and which legal DVDs can be played! Consider recent events: prototype DVDs that self-destruct a few days after being played a few times, for instance. Pirating is irrelevant, but DeCSS -- ah, DeCSS -- as the reverse engineering of their software, if declared legal, will make it possible for any person to legally play arbitrary DVDs anywhere and in any way they so choose. The so-called "import zones" that the DVD cartel has set up, making it impossible to play DVDs acquired in the USA in Europe and vice versa, are meaningless in a world where DeCSS is not only legal, but commonly deployed. As it stands, the MPAA holds a virtual monopoly on DVD distribution channels (except, of course, for piracy, which they don't realistically need to care about). If an artist wants to distribute a DVD of their movie, or if a company wants to, they first have to ask this cartel of major motion picture producers for what effectively amounts to permission to do so. This is a dangerous thing, because in the long term, it gives the MPAA control over which movies get released to the public and widely disseminated in a format that can be viewed by MPAA-approved players.

This overt, money-grubbing corporate greed is exactly what is going to ensure the discrediting of the MPAA and the wide dissemination of the technology behind DeCSS, and the eventual de facto commoditisation of DVD technology. In five years, can anyone imagine paying 30 dollars for approved blank DVDs? In five years, will DVD writers still cost a few thousand dollars? No, and no! Yet the DVD movie industry will thrive, not in spite of this commoditisation, but because of it. It's happened with cassettes, video tapes, and most recently CD's, and it will happen with DVDs as well. No technology or legal actions will be able to stand in the way of the simple desire for people to not be yanked around by corporations with their own agenda -- at least, not this overtly. In twenty years, maybe the population of the Internet will be docile and corporatised enough to take this sort of thing in stride, but not today.

The outcome of this legal battle is utterly and completely irrelevant. The cat is out of the bag, so to speak, and nothing is going to prevent the commoditisation of this technology. The MPAA is only shooting itself in the foot by attempting to resist that tide, and doing it enthusiastically, and methodically, with automatic weaponry.

Just ignore them. Support the Electronic Frontier Foundation if you want to help, mirror the DeCSS code, or simply play with some existing some existing DVD software.

Rob Bos (rbos@linux.com) is a university student and lab technician at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia. He enjoys free beer, free speech, and cats. Cats are nice. He also has much humility and is most definitely an accurate source of information about himself.





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