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Digg Me Out

Geekdom was all a-twitter last week with cries of anarchy and rebellion. It was great. I’ll try to explain, and excuse me if I don’t get it exactly right. I think I’m close, though.

It all had to do, at least ostensibly, with some computer code that “protects” the new high-definition DVDs. These are the DVDs that you don’t buy, because you don’t have a hi-def player or a high-def TV. You might never buy them, in fact, because regular DVDs are just fine. But I digress.

Back in January, somebody hacked this protection code, and posted a 32- character “key,” that allows the protection to be bypassed, on a blog somewhere. This is, of course, a time-honored tradition. The hack was done for sport, for bragging rights. The mighty media companies are always putting these protections on their products, and they pretty much all get hacked within days of release. No matter how smart the Einsteins of the corporate world are, there’s always a kid in a dorm room somewhere who’s smarter.

It’s a lot of ado about very little. This posted key requires more software and fiddling before it actually does anything. I doubt many people have done anything with it, because it’s cumbersome and complicated, and especially because it unlocks the protection on hi-def discs that hardly anybody owns.

Anyway, last week, the key wound up in an article that got posted on Digg.com, which is a Web site where anybody can post an article, and then people vote on their favorite articles, and the most popular articles get posted first. Or something like that. It’s a popular site of “netizens,” a less rigorous subset of not-quite geeks. You know who you are.

Then the legal department of some big media consortium sent Digg a cease-and-desist letter telling them that the posting of the key violated the consortium’s rights under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, which forbids the dissemination of things that defeat copyright-protection measures. Thirty-two random-looking letters and numbers—a legal hot potato!

Keep in mind that similar C&D letters have been sent to kids who figured out that earlier copy-protection schemes could be defeated by holding down the control key while a disc was loading, or by running a black Sharpie around the edge of a disc. One letter went to a college professor who answered an industry challenge to hack a “hack-proof” disc, and was going to present his findings at an academic conference.

C&D letters are part of an attorney’s stock-in-trade. I have several different templates, of varying temperatures, ranging from “pardon me, you really shouldn’t oughta be doing that” to “stop the crap or your ass is grass, scumbag.” They cost next to nothing to get out the door besides the cost of the stamp.

Big Media copyright owners tend to shoot first and ask questions later with C&D letters, figuring that the vast majority will scare the bejesus out of the recipient. You’ve got the impressive legal letterhead, listing offices in New York, Los Angeles, London and Tokyo; the stilted, antiseptic legal prose; the demands for an accounting of profits; the recitation of the maximum damage penalties available under copyright law. Most folks, acting rationally, figure the party’s over, turn off their computers, draw the shades, and sit shivering in the corner until it all blows over.

Back during the first Internet boom, some Net activists I worked with had a nice counter-measure when they got C&D letters: They posted them on the Web. The bullies got exposed as bullies; they looked silly and they usually backed off, because most of them they were just blowing smoke to begin with. Once, an activist got a second C&D letter from a law firm, claiming copyright- protection protection for the first C&D letter, and demanding that the first letter be taken down! That one got posted, too.

Anyway, at first Digg removed all postings of the key. And that’s when it hit the fan: Digg users, outraged at this spinelessness, started posting hundreds of articles containing the key on Digg.com, and then voted for them. The articles went up faster than the Digg people could remove them. At one point, the first five Digg pages were nothing but posts of articles containing the key. Somebody filmed himself singing a song with the key as the lyrics, and stuck it on YouTube. People are selling artworks and T-shirts containing the 32 characters. At last count, there were something like 700,000 postings of the key all over the Internet.

So the Digg people changed course, saying the Digg community had spoken, and that the lawyers would just have to deal with it, and left everything up on the site.

The lawyers—the corporate lawyers—are, of course, idiots. This reaction was as predictable as the sun coming up. At this point, it should be over, at least for this round. The DVD consortium has rewritten the copy-protection code. By the time you read this, it probably will have gotten hacked, too.

—Paul C. Rapp

Paul Rapp is an intellectual-property lawyer with offices in Albany and Housatonic, Mass. He teaches art-and-entertainment law at Albany Law School, and regularly appears as part of the Copyright Forum on WAMC’s Vox Pop. Contact info can be found at www.paulrapp.com. Comments about this article can be posted at rapponthis .blogspot.com.


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