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From the Editor
BYTE Magazine > Op/Ed > 2002 > January

Coding is a Crime

(Coding Is a Crime:  Page 1 of 1 )

Being smart and telling the truth may land you in more trouble than you ever imagined. Though programmers often look back at their lower school years as an exercise in suffering, an ordeal that at least leaves us with a shared basis for compassion, most of us actually find the "real world" to be a congenial place. In the final analysis, it's assumed, skill and smarts will triumph over hulking, stupid brutality.

Well, score one for the hulking brutes. Just as the tech world had drawn breath over the release of Dmitry Sklyarov, news came from Norway that Jon Johansen has been indicted on felony charges. At the age of 15, Johansen helped create the infamous DeCSS program, which can remove the access controls on DVD movies. More than two years later, the Motion Picture Association of America succeeded in squeezing Norwegian authorities into indicting him under antihacking laws.

The origins of DeCSS are fairly murky. The original DeCSS program was released in Windows executable form, and created by a cracking group called MoRE — Masters of Reverse Engineering — of which Johansen was a member. (The other authors of the program have successfully retained their anonymity.) But MoRE members also chose to forward the DeCSS source code to the LiViD (Linux Video and DVD) project, which needed such an algorithm for its open-source DVD software. It's clear that the program's authors intended their work to contribute to the general fund of knowledge in computer science.

In the real world, pure research can't often be separated from self-interest. But at its soul, the DeCSS program is nothing but a statement of truth. "Copy protections of DVDs aren't secure," it says, and it says that no matter what language it's translated into. See the Gallery of DeCSS Descramblers for a demonstration of the myriad different ways in which the same thing can be phrased.

In other fields — literature, journalism, physics, archaeology — it's understood that "telling the truth" is an endeavor worth protecting. But in the field of computer science, research and free expression are everywhere under attack. Like Sklyarov, Johansen has never been charged with making illegal copies of copyrighted works: His only crime was to correctly point out that such copies are possible to make. In the meantime, the concept of fair use is being systematically erased. The entertainment industry has deliberately crippled DVD playback technology with regional encoding and content-scrambling systems, and the music industry is doing the same thing with copy-protected CDs. At the behest of these powerful corporate interests, consumers are disenfranchised and developers are persecuted.

"We're finding that it already has a profoundly chilling effect not only on free speech but on science and innovation...all over the world," says EFF attorney Robin Gross. She's confident that the charges won't stick. Johansen is actually not being prosecuted under copyright infringement laws, but under an antihacking statute — even though the DVD "systems" he broke into were his own legal property. "This is quite a stretch in the law for that country," Gross says.

Sklyarov was freed. Johansen may win his case. Certainly there will always be individuals capable of shrugging off the technological shackles that the entertainment industry builds for its consumers. But the price they'll be forced to pay is absurdly high.

Alas, the world is still ignorant, and the smart still suffer.

Shannon Cochran
Associate Editor

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