Learning to Love the Bogey Man

By JJ King, 10 April 2000

Jamie King on a recent episode of the copyright protection saga - when will the industry realise encryption is never 'The End'?

The ongoing DeCSS<*> scandal (in which a New York judge is attempting to misuse the US’s recent ‘Digital Millennium Copyright’ act to prosecute a couple of Norwegian Linux users who wanted to watch DVDs on their machines and help others do so) is the latest in a series of problems the media industries have been having in protecting their digital products from disobedient net users. The shift from analogue to digital has meant big money for these industries — but it also means, as they are now discovering, that they must deal with a new media bogey man: the Rogue, Undegraded Copy (RUC).

Encryption algorithms are currently the first line of defence against Rogue Undegraded Copying problems (with the fall back being the beefed up copyright acts such as the ‘Millennium’ one mentioned above). The DeCSS case revolves around a 40 bit algorithm — now in the public domain and designed to protect DVDs from being copied — which was cracked and placed on a website by the Norwegians some months ago. Ignoring the fact that the file has quickly multiplied itself across the Net, the New York judge has now put a temporary injunction on about five of the original websites hosting the crack. Apparently, despite its wide availability on the Web, the algorithm is still to be considered a ‘trade secret’. "The Court is not persuaded," he has said, "that trade secret status should be deemed destroyed at this stage merely by the posting of the trade secret to the Internet.[...] To hold otherwise would do nothing less than encourage misappropriaters of trade secrets to post the fruits of their wrongdoing on the Internet."

The judge’s statements are symbolic of an industry-wide state of denial: encryption algorithms (even ones on steroids) are simply delaying the problem — they will still get hacked eventually; souped-up copyright laws are rather difficult to bring to bear on (for instance) anonymous Czechoslovakian warez sites; and holding stolidly that trade secrets in the public domain are still trade secrets will not help matters.

Even the US government itself has recently loosened its draconian stance on the export of encryption software after realising the fundamental problems with trying to control the distribution of the codes. If the media industry is really set on the digital medium as a means of doing business it needs to think not about more powerful code or harsher copyright laws (simply forms of denial and delay), but about changing its paradigms to embrace the RUC phenomenon which is endemic to digitality. Or they could always go back to analogue: vinyl and celluloid were rarely, for all their clunkiness and inefficiency, visited by Bogeymen of the magnitude of the Rogue, Undegraded Copy....

JJ King <jamie AT>

<*> DVD uses the so-called ‘Content Scrambling System’ (CSS) data encryption system for security against reading and copying; DeCSS uses DVD playback code — which has no encryption — to save the data back to a disk. With a DVD-ROM drive and the necessary disk space, a copy can be made.