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
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,
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.