DVDCA and the Big Lie
Eric S. Raymond
January 2, 2000
The DVD Control Association (DVDCA) is up in arms. A few weeks ago, some Linux hackers in Norway cracked the encryption scheme used for DVD media, producing a DVD decoder called DeCSS. On 27 December 1999, the DVDCA brought suit before a Superior Court judge in California accusing dozens of defendants and unnamed John Does of piracy. They sought a restraining order against websites carrying DeCSS.
The gravamen of their argument was that if DeCSS is allowed to proliferate, illegal copying of DVDs will become routine. Content producers (the film and television industry) will be irreparably injured because the market returns for their products will be stolen wholesale by pirates.
Much has already been made of the free speech issues this lawsuit raises. The DVDCA has imperiled its own case by seeking an injunction not merely against sites that carry DeCSS, but any site that carries links to the DeCSS carriers. An attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation argued that such a ruling would have severe chilling effects on free speech on the Web, and that may well have been the argument that persuaded the court not to grant an immediate injunction.
The real story here, though, is that the DVDCA's central complaint is fraudulent. DVD encryption does nothing to prevent content piracy. A pirate doesn't have to know how to decode DVDs to make bit-for-bit copies of them by the thousands. And no DVD player can distinguish between a legally distributed original and a pirated bit-for-bit copy. The amount of protection content producers get from DVD is exactly zero.
Why is the DVDCA lying? That's easy -- because the lie sounds a lot better than admitting that DVD is a fraud designed to line the pockets of a few selected players in the consumer-electronics industry. The DVDCA's real issue isn't protection of the market for DVD films, it's control of the market for DVD *players*.
The Linux hackers who broke DVD's encryption didn't do it because they wanted to copy DVDs -- nobody needs DeCSS to do copying! They did it because they wanted to play the DVDs they legally owned through their Linux machines. And that is what the DVDCA really wants to prevent; they're protecting their members' monopoly on DVD players. The high prices and license fees the DVD monopoly can charge would collapse if anybody with a PC and speakers no longer needed a dedicated DVD player or licensed software.
Content producers, far from being injured, will actually benefit from DeCSS because it expands their market by making players less expensive. The content producers owe the DeCSS hackers a favor -- they really ought to be suing DVDCA for cutting into their profits by rigging the player market!
There's another reason the DVDCA is lying. A long string of court cases defends both the right to reverse-engineer around trade secrets and individuals' rights to copy media they legally own into other formats for their personal use. The DVDCA must know that if they fight on that territory they will lose -- so, instead, they're hoping that if they blow enough smoke about piracy they can spook the courts into ignoring both equity and all the legal precedents in favor of the consumers and the content providers.
John Gilmore once observed that "The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it." Equally, the Internet interprets attempts at proprietary control as threats and mobilizes to defeat them. Hackers all over the world are responding to the DVDCA attack by propagating thousands of copies of DeCSS to websites all over the world, places where no California Superior Court will ever have jurisdiction. The genie is out of the bottle and won't be stuffed back in.
In one particularly telling bit of ironic spin, the OpenDVD website at http://www.opendvd.org/ is sponsoring "The Great International DVD Source Code Distribution Contest". Four winners demonstrating the most interesting and novel methods of distributing source code will each receive "a copy of the DVD movie of their choice about an evil totalitarian society, such as `1984' or `Brazil', so that they can watch the movie and thank God for their freedom."
One can almost pity DVDCA. Like the feeble minds behind the misnamed "Communications Decency Act" in 1996 and the NSA's key-escrow power grab back in 1994-95, they're about to find out what happens when you try to step on the Internet community's liberty. The biter-gets-bit consequences would have been amusing enough even if they weren't transparently frauds and liars; as it is, it should be very entertaining to watch the Internet make them look like idiots even before the courts chop them into chutney.