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Piracy Paranoia Proves Counterproductive
Rob Pegoraro, Washington Post 2003-06-23

A little program called DeCSS caused a lot of commotion when it surfaced on

the Internet four years ago. DeCSS does only one task: Remove the encryption

on a DVD movie, allowing the video files on the disc to be used at will --

played back off the disc, copied to the computer's hard drive or burned to a

second DVD.

Its author, a Norwegian teenager named Jon Lech Johansen, said he wrote DeCSS

because he wanted to be able to watch DVDs on his Linux computer and no

authorized playback software was available.

The movie industry preferred to describe DeCSS as a lock-picking tool, useful

only for piracy. It successfully filed suit to prevent the posting of DeCSS

to Web sites from the United States.

The entertainment industry's legal campaign against the DeCSS code (its name

refers to the Content Scramble System used to regulate playback) has

continued ever since. At the end of May, for example, the California Supreme

Court opened hearings on a suit by the DVD Copy Control Association, the

licensing body behind CSS, that argues posting DeCSS online violates the

state's trade-secret laws.

Programmers continued to rework DVD-unlocking software, eventually writing

new, more effective code. That, in turn, has given birth to a surprising

variety of applications.

These unauthorized DVD programs handle a variety of useful tasks. They allow

you to jump past the FBI warning that licensed playback software must display

before showing the movie. They let you breeze by the otherwise unskippable

commercials that some movie studios are fond of shoving into their DVDs. They

can ignore the "region controls" that prevent you from watching the movie you

bought in Paris on the player you picked up here.

For example, VideoLAN Client (www.videolan.org) allows DVD playback,

independent of region-coding restrictions, on Linux, Windows, Mac OS X and

other operating systems. It can even stream a DVD over the Internet, if

sufficient bandwidth is available. Like most software in this category, it's

an open-source release, free for anybody to download or improve on.

It can, however, be a little clumsy at opening a DVD sometimes -- there's no

guarantee that it will be able to play every title you throw at it.

Other software specializes in copying DVDs to disk. DVD Decrypter, a free

download for Windows (www.dvddecrypter.com), makes copying DVDs to disk as

easy as, if not easier than, copying songs off a CD. Load a DVD, fire up this

program and just click the big DVD-to-hard-disk icon to have it do its thing.

In about 20 minutes, it had the latest Bond flick stored on my laptop's hard

drive and had even automatically removed the region coding and the

Macrovision analog copy prevention that stops you from duplicating a DVD to

videotape.

I could use this program to copy rented DVDs at will, but I have no such

interest. Rather, this program is useful to me because it lets me move movies

I own to my laptop's hard drive, then leave the external DVD/CD-RW drive at

home when I travel.

In other words, this unauthorized, unlicensed software makes DVDs more

valuable and useful to me.

The DVD industry, however, sees things a little differently.

"If enough people do . . . not buy licensed players, then the economic

framework of the licensing framework goes down the drain," said Robert

Sugarman, a partner with Weil, Gotshal and Manges who represents the DVD Copy

Control Association. His argument: Without the control over DVD playback that

this licensing provides, the industry will see its profits nibbled away as

people steal DVDs.

Even watching a movie outside the region it was released in can pose a

financial threat, since the movie industry relies on the ability to issue

movies on DVD at varying times around the world to recover the high costs of

moviemaking.

Vendors of licensed DVD playback tools, Sugarman added, also lose their

investment in playing by the rules if users opt for unauthorized versions.

But two things don't quite make sense in the DVD association's position.

One is the idea of trying to stop the distribution of a program on the

Internet. It just doesn't work. The entire U.S. government could not stop an

encryption program called Pretty Good Privacy from being used throughout the

world in the past decade, and things have only gotten easier since.

The second is the focus on DeCSS. You don't need DeCSS to steal a DVD; you

can create a "disc image," an exact, bit-for-bit copy, and use that to make

new copies. Furthermore, nobody seems to use DeCSS anymore. Current

unlicensed playback software relies on a software library called "libdvdcss,"

which was written mostly from scratch after the release of DeCSS. And the DVD

copy association's lawyers have yet to go after this code.

"The DVD CCA has never tried to reach the VideoLAN team about our development

of the libdvdcss library," developer Sam Hocevar wrote in an e-mail.

Meanwhile, programmers of unauthorized DVD software are performing an

interesting economic service by determining what features customers would

enjoy if the capabilities of DVD players were not locked down by licensing

dictates.

There's plenty of free market research here, if the movie industry would only

take a look.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at rob (at) twp (dot) com. [email concealed]

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