Originally Published: Tuesday, 28 March 2000 Author: John Palmieri
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

DeCSS, Napster, and the Demise of Consumer DAT

Jon Johansen has stated that DeCSS, while it can only be run from Windows, was created so that OSs such as Linux that do not have DVD players could use it as a reference.

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On January 24, 2000, Jon Lech Johansen, a 16-year-old Norwegian student, was questioned and then charged by police as a result of pressure from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). His crime? Being one of the authors of a controversial program called DeCSS.

DeCSS is a program that circumvents DVD encryption to enable playback with players not sanctioned by the MPAA. In defense of the MPAA's action they have stated at they are only protecting against the potential for piracy that a program such DeCSS can circumvent.

On the flip side, Jon has stated that DeCSS, while it can only be run from Windows, was created so that OSs such as Linux that do not have DVD players could use it as a reference. While both views have its valid points public support has so far been weighted towards the authors and supporters of DeCSS and is widely viewed as a David (the consumer) vs. Goliath (big business) story.


Another program that has fallen in the sights of the entertainment industry is the Napster client that allows users to post and download music in the MP3 format. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), a sister organization of the MPAA, has been fighting the MP3 format quite unsuccessfully ever since it creation.

In an article on CNET, Cary Sherman, senior executive vice president and general counsel of the RIAA states, "we love the idea of using technology to build artist communities, but that's not what Napster is all about. Napster is about facilitating piracy and trying to build a business on the backs of artists and copyright owners."

While Napster certainly has the potential for illegal use it has a much more powerful potential as a distribution channel for music groups not controlled by the RIAA's member companies. A move by the RIAA has caused many Universities to ban Napster on their networks citing bandwidth issues but really rooted in fear of potential costly litigation by the RIAA. This is widely seen as a serious restriction on the right to freedom of speech in a place where free thinking is supposed to be protected and nourished over government and corporate interest.

The Martyrdom of Consumer DAT

These two examples may seem like issues that have sprung up just recently with the popularity of the Internet. This however is not true. Few remember the grand plans consumer electronic makers had for something called Consumer Digital Audio Tape or DAT for short. This is because plans for Consumer DAT were quickly killed off by the RIAA.

DAT was supposed to be the original replacement for analog tape. It offered the sound quality of CDs and the recording abilities of a normal tape. The RIAA had nightmares of digitally perfect recordings being distributed through black market channels. Does this sound familiar yet?

This set the RIAA in motion lobbying government for restrictions on the DAT medium. As a result of the RIAA's lobbying a chilling precedence was set. A law was past requiring that all DAT devices be equipped with a chip that would allow copying a master tape in the interest of fair use, but would encode copy protection on those copies so that copies could not be recorded off of copies. This would have not been a problem had the chips not cost so much to manufacture and integrate.

DATs are in wide use today by recording professionals and audiophiles alike, but the cost of over $1000 for an average DAT deck keeps them out of the hands of consumers. The RIAA successfully suppressed the DAT medium. This seems trivial in the face of recordable CDs but the defeat of DAT set the stage for the uphill battle CDs had to face before finally winning out against the RIAA.


In the past, products that had the ability to circumvent copy protection but also had other legal uses were upheld by the law as being legal to distribute. An example of this was the old disk copying utilities for the Apple II series. They had the potential to make illegal copies of software program complete with copy protection intact. They also could be used to create legitimate backup copies and were thus upheld by the law as being legal.

This is analogous to a hammer. A hammer can be used to commit crimes such as murder but they also have many legitimate uses. Restricting the manufacturing and distribution of hammers would be ludicrous. Similarly restricting the use of software that would allow a user to view a DVD that they bought or distribute a song that they created, just because they have the potential to be used for other illegal purposes, is also ludicrous.

Sadly though the MPAA and RIAA have garnered enough political power to have 16 year olds in foreign countries arrested and interrogated. Piracy has been around for years and while it is a serious problem it has yet to reduce the bottom line of these entertainment moguls who control the MPAA and RIAA.

What really is at stake here is not money as they would have us believe, but control and power. These programs take the power away from the entertainment industry and puts it squarely in the hands of the consumer. It is not only the illegal uses of these tools that scares the MPAA and RIAA, but also its legitimate uses. It will be interesting to see how courts deal with the DeCSS and Napster cases. Hopefully it will be to the benefit of consumers.

John Palmieri (aka Quinticent) is the founder of the Snaglepuss project and a student and CS Club President at Hofstra University on Long Island, NY.

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