DVD suit called threat to rights

January 03, 2000|By Hiawatha Bray | Hiawatha Bray,BOSTON GLOBE

An effort by the movie industry to prevent illegal copying of digital videodiscs (DVDs) could turn into a crucial battle over the fundamental rights of Internet users.

At issue is whether Web site operators can help distribute a piece of software that can defeat the security system built into millions of DVDs, enabling people to make illegal copies.

DVDs are one of the biggest success stories in consumer electronics. The technology can store a full-length movie on a disk the size of a standard music CD. And DVD technology produces image and sound quality far superior to that of videotape. Just two years after DVD players were introduced, consumers have bought about 5 million of them. Major Hollywood studios are rushing to release DVD versions of popular movies.

One reason the studios like DVD is that the system includes encryption technology that is supposed to make it impossible to copy a DVD disk. But in November, computer hackers in Norway unveiled a program called DeCSS that breaks the DVD encryption system.

The DVD Copy Control Association Inc., an industry group, is moving to prevent a wave of DVD piracy. The association filed suit last week in a California court against dozens of Internet sites, demanding that they stop distributing DeCSS.

Not only did the association sue Web sites that feature DeCSS software, it demanded that dozens of Web pages remove links to sites where the software is available.

For instance, many visitors to the popular technical Web site Slashdot have posted messages including links to DeCSS. The lawsuit would require that Slashdot remove all such messages from its site, arguing that posting links to the illegal software is illegal.

"Information posted on defendants' Web sites establishes that they are fully aware that, in posting or linking to the DeCSS program, they are wrongfully appropriating proprietary trade secrets," the association's complaint reads.

The association's offices have been closed for the holidays, and its attorney has declined to comment. But reactions from others ranged from skepticism to outright hostility.

"I gotta say, I wouldn't want to be them," said Jonathan Zittrain, a lecturer in Internet law at the Harvard Law School.

For one thing, Zittrain said, DeCSS may not be illegal in Norway, where it was invented.

That's the view of one of the code crackers, Frank Stevenson, a programmer for a Norwegian game maker who helped develop DeCSS as a hobby. "This is what cryptographers do for fun," Stevenson said. "You get your hands on a new cryptosystem and figure out if it's any good. I found out this one wasn't any good."

Stevenson said that in Norway, his actions are legal.

Zittrain also said he doubted a judge would order the operator of a Web site to stop linking to another Web site: "My guess is that a judge is going to be pretty skeptical."

The DVD hackers won the first skirmish Wednesday when a California Superior Court judge refused the industry association's request for a temporary restraining order against the defendants, according to wire reports.

But last month a federal judge in Utah issued a temporary injunction that forced operators of a Web site to remove links to pirated documents belonging to the Mormon church. The site operators may appeal the injunction.

Victory for the DVD industry could cause worries for a variety of Internet services.

For instance, Lycos Inc. of Waltham, Mass., runs an index of music files on the Internet. Many of these files are illegal copies of commercial recordings. A ruling in favor of the DVD industry would raise the prospect that Lycos' music index would either have to shut down or be modified to ensure that only legal recordings would be listed.

In the meantime, angry visitors to Slashdot have discussed holding a protest at the Santa Clara County courthouse where the suit has been filed. Other Slashdot users are urging people to download DeCSS and to post it in as many places on the Internet as possible, on the theory that it will be impossible to shut all the sites down. Sites where the software is available are receiving heavy traffic from people seeking copies.

"More people have downloaded the program from my server today than in the last 30 days!" wrote Slashdot user Andrew Thomas McLaughlin, who is listed as a defendant in the suit. "I suppose I have the [DVD maker association's] law firm to thank for that."

Rob Malda, editor-in-chief at Slashdot, says he isn't worried about the legal action against his site. Slashdot is owned by Andover.net Inc. of Acton, Mass. Malda said he'll let the company's attorneys worry about the matter.

But he added that if the lawsuit is successful, there would be a chilling effect on Internet free speech, because many people would be afraid to link to someone else's Web site in case copyrighted material is contained there. "That's the end of the First Amendment," Malda said.

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