It’s taken four years, but the California DVD case
will finally reach the state Supreme Court on Thursday. (From there, it will probably head to the U.S. Supreme Court.) And yet, the media is still getting the story completely wrong
: DeCSS was not created to copy DVDs (though its code can be used in that fashion), but rather to make DVDs viewable with Free Software
See, you may think you “own” those shiny silver discs you’ve bought. You may think you can play your DVDs on whatever damn hardware you like. But the movie industry says you’re wrong. Moving overseas? Your American DVDs won’t play on European or Asian players. Run Linux instead of Windows or the Mac OS? Too bad: There is no sanctioned player software for that platform. Free Software projects don’t pay ransoms to gain the “secret recipes” needed to access closed data formats — instead, such projects reverse engineer the formats in question. The movie mavens (along with their inbred cousins in the music industry and the commercial software cabal) want to outlaw this sort of reverse engineering for good.
This might not sound scary if you’re the type of person who sticks to commercial software and never has a need to reverse engineer a damned thing. Windows will always play DVDs, and Windows is all you’ll ever use, so why should you care about this issue? I’ve got one word for you: e-books. If industry can in fact control how
you access the content you have paid for, then the evil possibilities are endless when we arrive at a time and space where e-books are more prevalent than their dead-tree counterparts.
Say you someday purchase a book in Microsoft Reader 11.0 format. Two years later, you decide to upgrade to a new e-book reader. You get home and you realize that your new reader only reads Microsoft Reader 12.0 files. Microsoft is willing to “upgrade” your 11.0 format books to the new format, but for a fee.
Right there, you’ve been denied access to content you paid for
. Will it
be legal for you, at that point in time, to reverse engineer the 11.0 books you
own and convert them to 12.0 format yourself? Or would it be legal for you to hire some good-natured hacker to do this work for you?
Some geek in the back just stood up and said my example is bogus, because we can safely assume that new hardware would be backwards-compatible and would be able to read older files. All right, then: Say you purchase a bunch of books in a competing format — Adobe’s e-book format, version 8.0 let’s say — and that competing format doesn’t do so well in the marketplace, and eventually, Adobe gives up, packs up, goes home. You’ve got a few dozen books in their format, which is now abandoned. And then your Adobe e-book reader fails, and you can’t find replacement parts or anyone who can fix it. Will it be legal for you to reverse engineer the Adobe format and convert your books to another format you can access? Will it be legal for you to pay a hacker to do the work for you?
We don’t know the answers to these questions yet. The next chapter in this particular legal saga begins tomorrow.