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
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?
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