Hollywood's war on open source: Linux in the cross hairs

It's the Davids vs GoliathDon Marti, a Linux advocate, said the cases aren't about piracy.

"Why is the Motion Picture Association and the DVD CCA going after us, the Linux users, instead of the massive infringers? Because they're attempting to exert control," Marti said, pointing out as an example that current DVDs don't allow people to fast-forward through commercials and trailers at the beginning of a movie.

Robert McAughan, an intellectual property attorney with Howrey, Simon, Arnold & White, said the movie industry could be overstepping its copyright authority by making viewers watch the DVD trailers. "If you look at its purpose, the DMCA was to extend traditional copyright notions and protections to the digital age," he said. "There is no guarantee of a copyright holder that I know of to force someone to watch advertising."

However, McAughan said that the laws surrounding any new technology must be tested in the courts, and each side will push as hard as it can to protect its business interests. "The rough edges will get defined," he said. "With some of the newer laws, you're really going to have to wait to see how the courts address them."

Most movements have a poster boy, and the DeCSS defendants have found theirs in 16-year-old Jon Johansen. In January, Norwegian police raided the home of Johansen and questioned both him and his father before confiscating his computer and mobile phone. The teen's crime? He was one of the first people to post the DeCSS code.

Overnight, Johansen became a cause celebre. At LinuxWorld 2000 earlier this month, supporters of the defendants passed out bumper stickers that read "Free Jon Johansen" (for the record, Johansen isn't in jail) and "Coding is not a crime". Linux lovers have even taken the issue to the popcorn brigade by handing out flyers at movie theatres and selling T-shirts containing the DeCSS code.

This isn't a case of weird geek evangelism, either. For Linux programmers, the DeCSS battle strikes at one of the pillars of the open source revolution: the right to reverse-engineer. After all, it's through reverse engineering that many developers create applications for the OS that's gone from underground to alternative in the past two years.

Still, as the law currently stands, it's unlikely the Linux faithful's efforts will sway the federal and county judges who are deciding the fate of the issue. And that's a shame, said Mark Lemley, a University of California law professor who's following the debate.

"I think the DCMA as it's written is a disastrous statute," Lemley said. "Congress probably didn't think all the way through the ramifications of the way they structured the bill."

Lemley pointed out that you potentially could encrypt a book or research paper. Under the strictest interpretation of the DMCA, someone who cracked the code to read the book and quote it for a review would be a criminal. He said the DMCA could lead to an incremental chipping away of rights, such as fair use and research-oriented reverse-engineering.

"It's a real mistake to try to roll back technology," he said. "My fear is if we sort of lose these freedoms by degree, no one will really notice."

See also Hollywood's war on open source.

See also Hollywood's war on open source: Don't fence me in.

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