Hot on the Web
Lost in Cyberspace
Online San Diego
Feature Articles
Book Reviews and Reading Diary
Music Reviews
Favorite quotates
Contact Me

Lost in Cyberspace

Trying to outlaw technology a doomed effort

This article was originally published on January 4, 2000 by SignOn San Diego and Copley News Service.

As the new millennium opens (or the last year of the old millennium, if you're a purist), the entertainment industry remains stuck in the past.

Only months after futilely trying to block the public distribution of MP3 technology over fears of music piracy, Hollywood is now pursuing a lawsuit to try to stop Web site hosts from either posting or linking to a program to allow copies to be made of DVD discs.

Called DeCSS, the small program reverse-engineered the encryption key used on all DVD video releases – the code that allows your DVD player to show the movie, but not make copies of it.

The authors of DeCSS then posted their program on the Internet – and, while they took it down under threat of litigation, others who had already downloaded it soon posted it on their sites, with hundreds – thousands by now, no doubt – of other sites offering links to the file.

The entertainment industry has fought and lost the battle against new technology before. The first time was with cassette tapes in the late 1960s. Hollywood claimed that if cassette tapes and tape decks were allowed to be sold, it would make piracy so easy that the entire industry could go bankrupt as people recorded their favorite LPs and gave them away or sold them on the black market.

Ten years later, the same argument was trotted out for videocassettes; a decade after that, for digital audio tape (DAT).

Of course, despite the supposedly lethal threat of audio and videocassettes, as well as reel tapes, DAT and rewriteable CD recorders, the entertainment barons survive and thrive. I somehow don't recall seeing Michael Eisner at the Salvation Army over the holidays.

In fact, if anything, unauthorized bootlegs represent not the economic threat the Hollywood moguls make them out to be in court, but are instead a highly effective form of marketing for the movie and music houses. People borrow or get an illegal copy of a movie or album, and end up wanting the real thing to get all the packaging and photos that come with the legal release. They get turned on to actors and musicians they might not otherwise have been familiar with, and end up purchasing additional releases they never would have even known about before.

How else to explain the fact that 30 years after the advent of the cassette tape, the music industry is bigger, more profitable and more powerful than ever?

But the Internet represents a new threat, we're told. DVD movies could be copied and redistributed over the Internet.

While that's true enough, it ignores two crucial points:

1. Videocassettes have been available for illegal copying for 20 years.

2. Downloading a movie in digital format can take days via a typical 56k modem; even a low-quality version in QuickTime, AVI or MPEG format will run into the hundreds of megabytes, and a DVD movie runs well into the gigabytes – most folks aren't willing to invest that much time to download a movie (assuming they even have enough free hard-drive space) when they can rent the same movie for $4 down the street.

Finally, there are the legal and ethical ramifications of Hollywood's attempt to shut down DeCSS. To try to outlaw someone developing new technology based on backward engineering (i.e., they simply take a disc and try to find a way to crack it without using any protected intellctual property) seems to tread frighteningly close to the First Amendment's free speech protections. While the developers of DeCSS may have had some assistance in cracking the CSS code on DVD discs (apparently a RealNetworks subsidiary didn't properly encrypt their DVD codes on one of their software players), it's still a bit scary to consider having a federal court tell programmers what they can and can't write.

Further, to try to stifle technological innovation in the name of protecting profit calls into question the entire role of copyright law. The original intent of copyrights and patents was to provide encouragement to innovators by protecting their economic investment in their developments – the thinking being that the public good would be served by the flood of new products this would spark.

However, the anti-DeCSS lawsuit will have the exact opposite effect – that of stifling innovation.

It's hard to see how that serves the public.