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Creative freedom

Criminal code?
A judge's decision to ban a DVD-playing Linux program and all discussion about it outrages the free-software community.

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By C. Scott Ananian

Feb. 9, 2000 | A week ago I began putting "Acquit Jon Johansen" posters up around the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I am a graduate student. Last Wednesday, I started handing out the same fliers to suits at the LinuxWorld expo in New York. On Friday, I stood at the corner of 42nd and Broadway competing with the flower lady for a piece of New York's mindshare. Hackers and geeks in 74 other North American and 26 other international cities did the same. The free-software community is up in arms, chanting for freedom and carrying pictures of Johansen, a 16-year-old Norwegian.

And just why was I freezing my toes on a Manhattan corner instead of warming my fingers on the keyboard of my laptop, hacking code? And why were geeks passing the hat at a LinuxWorld convention party the night before, raising cash for a Johansen defense fund? Forget the VA Linux buyout of Slashdot, or the latest rumor about which Linux start-up is about to go public -- right now, the Johansen case is the single hottest issue in the free-software/open-source world.

Maybe you haven't yet heard of Jon Johansen or DeCSS, the computer program he wrote last year. If the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has its way, you never will. DeCSS is one piece of a set of programs that allow computers running Linux-based operating systems to play DVDs; currently there is no commercial software available to play DVDs on Linux. Through a not-all-that-difficult feat of reverse engineering, DeCSS unscrambles the encryption that previously prevented Linux fans from enjoying the pleasures of their favorite digital video disc.

To the MPAA, DeCSS is a tool for piracy. But the truly alarming fact about this case is that, under restrictions set forth in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act passed by Congress in 1998, the MPAA doesn't even have to prove that DeCSS has ever been used to make illegal copies in order to criminalize possession of the code. All the MPAA has to do is show that DeCSS can be used to subvert "access control mechanisms." So even legitimate owners of legally purchased DVDs can be arrested for viewing their own discs -- if they use DeCSS to view those discs on their Linux box -- or for telling other people that DeCSS can be so used.

On Jan. 20, a New York district court judge agreed with the MPAA, granting a preliminary injunction forbidding three online distributors of DeCSS from posting the program on any Web site or otherwise "trafficking in any technology" that does what DeCSS is purported to do.

The decision has been viewed as a major setback for open-source hackers. But whether DeCSS promotes piracy isn't even the real issue. To the hackers hard at work coding the world of tomorrow the real problem is the criminalization of source code. Hackers believe that source code is a form of expression, and that our First Amendment rights apply to the source code we create. But now a major showdown is brewing between the politics of free software and the status quo of intellectual property protection. It's not just about the dinosaurs of the pre-digital era striving desperately to hold onto their antiquated business structures against the coming flood of the future; it is most profoundly about our freedom to reconstruct computing as a tool to stave off a networked dystopia.

Do we want a future where corporations can obsessively monitor and nickel-and-dime us by charging for every single instance in which we look at or listen to a recorded piece of entertainment? Or do we want a world in which home use is free from surveillance and we, rather than some faceless, greedy conglomerate, control the hardware and software we own?

. Next page | The politics of code: Why hackers have to stand and fight!

Illustration by Jennifer Ormerod/

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