Pirates & protection

Jul 26, 2000 at 12:00 am
In the Web’s noisy circus of intellectual property cases, the shouting surrounding Napster (www.napster.com) makes for an interesting sideshow. But to me, the ongoing controversy over DVDs and DeCSS — that already notorious DVD “piracy” device — is far more intriguing. Maybe it’s because the case is deliciously complex. So complex, in fact, that big media outlets keep missing the main point of the story. Allow me to explain.

To be fair, it’s complicated: First, the American motion picture industry encodes DVDs, their new video format. Then, enterprising European kids handily defeat this copy protection. One of the kids even writes a software version of a DVD player and gives it away online.

The movie industry makes money on every DVD player sold — even the software ones — so they, of course, want to sue. But they can’t sue these kids, who live overseas. Instead, they sue a Long Island guy who linked his Internet page to the free player. The charge: Spreading a tool for piracy.

Huh? Raise your hand if you’re confused.

Apparently, the mainstream media is. Last week, the case finally went to trial, pitting heavyweight film types against Eric Corley, the poor fellow who offered the DVD player from his Web site, www.2600.com.

That same day, USA Today (usatoday.com) covered the trial online and in print. But it was clear that the colorful news rag fell for the movie industry’s piracy argument like a chloroformed monkey. Witness their lead: “(Movie studio lawyers) warned … that a free software program that unscrambles protective codes on DVDs poses a threat of piracy that must be stopped.”

Plus, the story barely mentions that this infamous DVD “piracy tool” is — first and foremost — software for playing DVDs. That’s right, playing, not pirating.

Obviously, this technical detail must have them big media boys confused.

I’ll break it down easy: Imagine you scoop up a hefty stack of new DVDs at the local electronics superstore. You plunk down your credit card and walk out with a dozen or so titles, the best entertainment Hollywood has to offer.

Now you legally own these movies — or at least the right to watch them — 50 gazillion times from the comfort of your living room’s snazzy blue Naugahyde easy chair.

Ah, but when you get home, you realize you forgot something. Whoops! You don’t own a DVD player! How silly. And after emptying your wallet at DVD Emporium, you don’t have any money left to buy one.

So, since you are a fabulously creative programming genius (OK, a bit of a stretch, but bear with me), you write a software program that lets you watch said DVDs on your PC.

And that’s exactly what this so-called illegal DVD software does.

Now granted, the software must — of course — defeat a DVD’s copy protection in order to play it. And yes, a copy of the DVD could then theoretically be made. But copying something you already own isn’t illegal, unless you give it away, right?

Not anymore. The sad fact is that the mere act of copying something may now be against the law.

Not that you’d know it from reading USA Today’s story. They don’t even mention the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which the motion picture industry lobbied Congress to pass in 1998. The DMCA technically made it against the law to defeat someone else’s copy protection, even if all you want to do is back up something you already own.

And that’s what this trial is really about.

The real questions: Since it’s been illegal for years to distribute unauthorized copyrighted material, is the movie industry truly worried about piracy? Or do the studios just want to maintain their monopoly on who can make DVD players — and keep their profit every time one is sold?

There’s another, more philosophical question here too. Can someone copy protect copy protection? Sure, our society values innovation enough to protect unique creative works. But is copy protection itself a unique work? What about the arguably equally unique effort that goes into removing it?

I think we’ve all been hoodwinked here. And even the courts may have fallen for the scam. Trial defense lawyers say they’re expecting to lose this round of the battle and will have to appeal.

Watch out, kids. Don’t be surprised if this one goes all the way to the Supreme Court.

MP3 to go

Speaking of Napster, if I were a cigar-chomping music industry exec, I’d be really worried about the new Mambo-X portable CD player (mambox.com, $199.95). In addition to spinning regular CDs, the Mambo-X plays MP3 files burned onto CD-R discs. And a CD-R can hold a ton of MP3 music.

Unlike previous efforts at portability (Diamond’s popular Rio player comes to mind), users don’t have to wait for songs to download into memory. Plus, the Mambo-X offers far more than the typical hour or so of playtime. One CD-R will hold well over 10 albums worth of music.

Imagine: every song Led Zeppelin ever released on one little disc. Now that’s a whole lotta love.

Download Adam Druckman (for free!) at www.metrotimes.com