Hollywood's war on open source

It's the Davids vs Goliath. By attacking reverse engineering, Hollywood's barrage of lawsuits over DVD code has struck the heart of the open source revolution
Written by Lisa M. Bowman, Contributor on

When Matthew Pavlovich arrived home from a Caribbean cruise with his parents and grandparents over the holidays, he discovered he was a wanted man.

Back on shore, a string of messages from friends and acquaintances awaited the Purdue University senior. Among them, an ominous question: how does it feel to be a defendant in a lawsuit? Puzzled, Pavlovich did some investigating and soon learned that he was one of dozens of defendants named in one of a barrage of DVD lawsuits. He had been accused by the DVD Copy Control Association of the theft of trade secrets for linking to DeCSS, an unlicensed Windows-based DVD player that potentially lets users view and copy DVD movies.

That came as a surprise to Pavlovich, since he wasn't aware of any links to DeCSS on his site and was trying to create applications that enhance, not pirate, DVDs. Pavlovich is working on LIVID, a video and DVD development project for the Linux operating system. Among his plans: to make a voice-activated system that lets users scan a DVD movie to find a certain line of dialogue, like the part in Sudden Impact when Clint Eastwood as Harry Callahan sneers, "Go ahead, make my day."

"It's kind of a shame they don't see the big picture," Pavlovich said of his legal adversaries, who misspelled both his name and that of his site in the suit. "The big question is: what are they going to do next? What are they going to force us into next?"

To find the answer, you only need look at what Hollywood has already done. Historically, Hollywood has fought against any new technology, from radio to television to VHS, that it feared would dent its core business -- the movies, worth $6.9bn (£4.2bn) at the US box office alone in 1998.

The last time the industry went into the trenches was back in 1984, when it lost a Supreme Court battle to ban the home video player format. Sixteen years later, the story could have a much different ending. This time the industry is armed with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a law passed in 1998 that gives copyright owners unprecedented control over products such as DVDs or CDs. Under the act, the entertainment industry's content control continues even after its products have been sold, and extends over previously legal actions like reverse engineering. In fact, under the DMCA, the VCRs in 84 percent of US households could, theoretically, be deemed illegal because they can be used to tape copyrighted TV shows or movies.

DeCSS and the Content Scrambling System (CSS) are at the kernel of much of the legal brouhaha. The CSS is the algorithm used to encrypt DVD content, but it was broken last year by researchers during an international open source project. DeCSS uses the decrypted CSS algorithm to play DVDs, opening up the potential for users to also copy them.

Then again, it's irrelevant whether or not the DeCSS player is used to copy a single DVD player. According to the judicial reading of the Digital Millennium Act, DeCSS circumvents copy protection to play DVDs, and is therefore illegal.

Small wonder then that two industry trade groups -- the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the DVD Copy Control Association (DVD CCA) -- are not only currently testing copyright law in the digital age, but are also waging war on the open source culture.

The DVD CCA, which is targeting Pavlovich and at least 70 other defendants, alleges that simply linking to DeCSS code amounts to trade secret theft. The MPAA, meanwhile, is wielding the DMCA, accusing, in two federal lawsuits filed in Connecticut and New York, four people of using DeCSS to circumvent its copyrights. Moreover, since the DMCA passed, other companies -- including Real Networks -- have also cited the law in separate suits to go after new technology they claim threatens their copyrights.

It doesn't seem to matter to the plaintiffs that the defendants say they only cracked CSS in order to reverse-engineer (a process that's protected under copyright law) the technology so they could study, enhance and create compatible versions of it for alternative operating systems. Not that some defendants say they were trying to create a Linux DVD player and add Linux-based enhancement to the product. Never mind the fact that court rulings have declared software code protected as free speech.

And, thus far, none of that seems to matter to the courts, either. In the MPAA suit filed in US District Court in New York, and the DVD CCA suit in Santa Clara, California, judges temporarily blocked the defendants from posting or linking to the DeCSS code.

"It appears that DeCSS is being distributed in a manner specifically intended to facilitate copyright infringement," wrote federal judge Lewis Kaplan.

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

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

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