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Pressing Forward

In the 15th Century, Gutenberg combined woodblock letters, the wine press, and paper to perfect the printing press; and he unleashed the first means of anonymous mass communication. So potent was this vehicle of individual expression that European governments, such as they were, quickly moved to control who could have printing presses and how they were used. If you had a printing press, weren’t a friend of the King, and weren’t careful, you could expect a visit from a goon squad with axes that would reduce your press to firewood.

Royal decrees rationalized the goon squads as serving a public purpose. Unregulated printing presses were responsible for such evils as Bibles with mis-spellings in them! Forsooth! Obviously this was nonsense—there was no standardized spelling yet, and one serf’s guess on how to spell “miracle” was pretty much as much as good as the next serf’s. (Or some vicar’s, for that matter.) The kings and queens and the churches were afraid of free speech, and of all the mayhem that would result if people were allowed to speak their minds in a mass setting.

Over the years, forensic science has whittled away at the idea that printing things could always be done anonymously. Because of the mechanical process of making letters, every printing press, every typewriter, was a little different, perhaps microscopically so. And so it became possible, through sharp investigation, to pin something on a printed page to a particular printing press or typewriter. This technology became a tool for both good and evil, and was used to nail real bad guys as well as political dissidents. Of course, forensic matching required access to the offending press (or typewriter) for testing, a clean copy of the work being investigated, and an expert to look at it. So it became a cat-and-mouse game. But, if you could stay hidden, you could say whatever you wanted and get away with it. You could spread lies and dirty stories, write ransom notes, and topple corrupt governments. Such is the nature of free speech.

Fast forward to 2005. Printing things is easier than ever, and digital technology—in the form of word processing, computers, and laser printers—has erased the old mechanical fingerprints that allowed law enforcement to track down authors of things that were deemed dangerous. Or so we thought.

Last week, the Electronic Frontier Foundation announced that it had discovered that numerous manufacturers of color laser printers, including HP, Xerox, and Epson, had, at the request of the government, stuck chips in their machines that generate unique individual patterns of tiny yellow dots on every document generated by certain models of printers. So now, far from being anonymous, color copies made on these machines can be traced straight to the owner’s house.

The EFF has confirmed all this with researchers from the Xerox Corporation, and has petitioned the government, through Freedom of Information requests, for more details about who is doing this and how it’s being used.

The ostensible reason why this is going on is to combat currency counterfeiters. Certainly this is a noble cause, as even consumer-level printing technology has reached a point where anybody can crank out some decent looking fake folding money with the push of a button. But are you really comfortable that this is what it’s being used for? Do you trust questions like this to guys with names like Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, and Gonzales? Or how about Mugabe or Castro? Do you want them to be able take something you’ve printed off your laptop and be able to figure out where you live?

Since 9/11 there’s been a palpable reduction in general concerns about civil liberties, and of course any government, no matter how benign, is going to use that lapsed concern to reduce citizens’ rights. It’s only natural. Feel safer?

Here’s an exercise. Take the quote “If you aren’t breaking the law, you’ve got nothing to worry about.” Replace the words “breaking the law” with “Jewish.” Think about it and get back to me.

Back to the matter at hand: What can you do about that tattletale laser printer sitting next to your desk? Not a whole lot that I can think of, although I’m guessing that ways to disable the yellow-dot fingerprint chips will be coming soon to an Internet chat room near you. For your next printer, you might consider paying in cash, in person, while wearing a disguise, and then not registering your printer with the manufacturer. Or you could buy a used printer from somebody you really, really don’t like.

Of course, maybe this is whole lot of to-do about nothing. Printers, pamphlets, paper, the printed word—they’re all so, like, 1985, right? These days, everybody communicates over the Internet at the speed of light. Point, click, send out a podcast. There’s no borders. It’s unlimited and it’s free.

And nobody can watch you there. Right?

—Paul Rapp

Paul Rapp is an intellectual-property lawyer with offices in Albany and Housatonic, Mass. He teaches art-and-entertainment and copyright law at Albany Law School. Contact info can be found at www.paulrapp.com.


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