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DeCSS in the funny pages
Kevin Poulsen, SecurityFocus 2001-03-02

Popular comic strip slams DVD judge, sides with 2600.

The world's most illegal computer program made an appearance on the comics page this week, and the Motion Picture Association of America isn't laughing.

Two consecutive installments of the popular syndicated comic strip The Boondocks slammed opponents of DeCSS, an open source program that allows users to bypass the scrambling system used to protect DVDs. The strip appears in 250 daily and Sunday papers nationwide, according to distributor Universal Press Syndicate.

DeCSS was the target of a lawsuit filed by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) last year, which ended with federal judge Lewis Kaplan in New York ruling that the program was created in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Kaplan ordered defendant Eric Corley, editor of 2600, the Hackers Quarterly, to remove the program from his publication's web site, rejecting the argument that computer code is speech protected by the First Amendment.

The court went on to prohibit Corley from even linking to sites that published DeCSS. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is appealing the decision on Corley's behalf. The ACLU and the American Library Association are among the groups that have filed briefs in support of Corley. The Justice Department, and, more recently, the NFL and the Major League Baseball have taken the MPAA's side in the controversy.

There's little doubt where The Boondocks' creator Aaron McGruder stands.

The 26-year-old McGruder's critically acclaimed comic strip centers on two gradeschool-aged African American brothers transplanted from Chicago to live with their grandfather in the suburbs. It frequently deals with issues of race, and is often outspoken and controversial. "It's created a lot of dialog between readers of newspapers, editors and comic page historians," says Universal Press Syndicate spokesperson Kathy Kerr.

This week's strips depicted older brother Huey, a strongly opinionated civil libertarian and Ralph Nader-booster, surfing the Internet while lecturing a friend on the evils of corporate greed.

Huey began the week focused on the Recording Industry Association of America's legal assault on Napster, siding squarely with the music-swapping site. But by Thursday, the young revolutionary had moved on to the somewhat more obscure DeCSS controversy, when he found a copy of the program on the Internet.

"I found the DeCSS code that breaks the encryption on DVDs!," the character exclaims.

Friday's strip, available online from www.ucomics.com, demonstrated that McGruder has a surprising command of the details of the case.

The strip is almost entirely obscured by a black stripe with the notice "CENSORED" in bold, underlined letters. "This comic contains numerous references to the DeCSS code used to bypass the Content Scrambling System of DVDs, which, by order of Judge Lewis Kaplan, is illegal to reproduce in any way," reads the text beneath. "We apologize for the inconvenience, but speech that damages the profits of our corporate friends is NOT protected by the First Amendment. Thank You."

"I think most people would agree that the movie industry has been a strong defender of the First Amendement," countered MPAA spokesperson Emily Kutner.

"Obviously Mr. McGruder is following the lawsuit, and he thought it was an interesting topic for his piece this week," said Kutner. "Personally, I like Doonesbury."

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