Fight the Evil DMCA

Thursday, July 25 2002

If you’re a geek, you probably remember when Dmitry Sklyarov

was arrested by the FBI immediately after giving a speech to fellow geeks at the DefCon 9, the ninth annual convention on computer security and other very geeky things. If not, then he probably means little to you, and you’re probably hitting the back button as we speak, but wait, this is important stuff.

What could Dmitry have said that would motivate the FBI? Dmitry demonstrated software that was able to read the popular PDF file format without using the Adobe Acrobat plugin. Seems pretty harmless right? He figured it all out on his own, without stealing anything from Adobe, and was excited to show it off. He didn’t sneak into Adobe, and take pictures of their secret business operations. No one has died by his hands, he’s a pretty harmless and well meaning geek. So why the arrest?

There’s this thing called the DMCA. The Digital Millenium Copyright Act. It was passed a few years back, and is basically 59 pages of copyright law that strip consumers of all sorts of rights, and give big producers of copywritten material all sorts of rights (enough in this case to have a man arrested and put in federal prison). In this case, Adobe felt that Dmitry was breaking the DMCA.

That was about a year ago. Currently, the US vs. Elcomsoft, Dmitry’s software company, case, has yet to happen.

Fast forward to today. Bruce Perens, a software developer, was making serious plans to talk about how to “unlock” region encoded DVD discs at the Infoworld Convention tomorrow. He was sure that he was going to be breaking the DMCA, and was getting a lot of coverage because of his “screw you DMCA” attitude. Compare that to the attitude of Dmitri and you can guess what the FBI might do.

DVD players currently disallow a viewer in America to watch a DVD from Japan. I can’t begin to tell you why this is, I don’t even know myself. Seems pretty pointless. Anyhow, this little “feature” of DVD players is a major annoyance, and ends up costing smaller DVD producers more money if they want to sell to markets outside their region. Big Hollywood has no problem with it, in fact, they suggested it in the first place, and are also largely responsible for the DMCA all together. Spending millions upon millions on lobbyists can produce desirable results.

Bruce has changed his plans however. It seems that Hewlett-Packard, a company with deep pockets, funds most of Bruce’s projects, and they feared that they’d get dragged into the inevitable bloody battle launched by Hollywood. They encouraged Bruce to avoid breaking the DMCA, and Bruce agreed willingly.

Personally, I think the DMCA is based on pure greed. It does little to protect me, both as a content producer and consumer, and does quite a bit to keep the money in big media’s pockets. The problem is, big media companies keep using the DMCA to fight the little guys, and they keep winning. It’s a big stupid mess, and the regular Joe on the street doesn’t know enough about what kind of freedoms are being stripped from them, and when they do, it will likely be too late to do anything about it.

The DMCA is getting people like Dmitry and others put in federal prison for what? Writing code? Code that perhaps makes big media companies uncomfortable? So a single coder is more dangerous than a giant corporation or consortium of giant corporations who are motivated by little more than greed?

The DMCA disgusts me, not so much because it’s a thorn in my side (truthfully, I doubt I’ve felt any discomfort from it yet). The DMCA to me represents Hollywood and the sickening wealth it generates, and it’s influence over the American justice system. It proves that, with enough money, Hollywood can influence law makers to pass laws that suit no one better but Hollywood itself, squashing even the slighest opposition to their making sickening amounts of money. Give Hollywood enough power and influence, and eventually our bank accounts will be charged everytime we listen to Barry Manilow, or catch a glimpse of Mel Gibson.

Simply disgusting.