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Stop the Australian (Anti)Vaccination Network

Digital Freedom

(or lack thereof)

This essay started out as an email to a friend who is considering buying a DVD player. Like most average consumers, he knows that DVD is great to watch, and it's got really good sound. Unfortunately most average consumers are not aware that DVD hardware is really quite crippled. That's detail which isn't in the glossy brochures from Harvey Norman or Dick Smith.

Much of the DVD cripple can be removed by buying the right player and getting it modified, but the average ignorant person will not know this before purchasing, and so they are likely to have problems which they don't understand.

It would be good if we could "vote with our wallets" and simply refuse to buy crippled hardware and software. Every time a DVD player or a DVD-ROM is purchased, that's a tiny endorsement to the industry which says that people are consumers not individuals, that they will accept control, even when their own purchased hardware is refusing to function for policy reasons over which the customer has no control.

Unfortunately though, DVD is just too good a technology to pass up. Smart purchase can result in freedom to use the machine as the owner desires, but the content industry and the "DVD Copy Control Association" in particular need to be made aware that we are buying this technology in spite of rather than because of its restrictions, and that we will make the hardware do what it is capable of doing, whether you like it or not!

This essay starts as a simple discussion of DVD technology and then branches out into several other areas where basic freedoms are being eroded almost daily.

Here begins the email

(I mention that DVD players and many VCRs corrupt their video output signal with a thing called Macrovision, which has been introduced quietly).

Maybe you don't know what Macrovision is, because it's been sneaked into video recorders very quietly over the last few years. It's a technique of corrupting the video signal (say, the video output from a DVD) so it will play alright on a TV set, but confuses VCRs so they won't record properly.

For many years now the MPAA and the RIAA (basically a cartel of big content owners and producers like Disney and Sony) have been waging a battle to try to gain total control over who uses their content and how. They've attacked basic freedoms on many fronts and have been quite successful because they have big $$, lots of lawyers, and they can buy US senators with campaign contributions. Their motive is to preserve the video and music industries as their cash cow, to make legislation which guarantees that they profit handsomely, and to prevent anything which might upset their monopoly.

Copyright is one of the areas where they have enjoyed success. Originally intended to balance the rights of content producers (individuals) and distributors with a 7-year right, the term of copyright protection has been increased 11 times over the past 40 years. Now it's something like 90 years after the death of the author. Disney is the main offender here as they have fought tooth and nail to retain their copyright to Mickey Mouse.

Along with essentially endless right to control their content, they are working on technological means to limit what people can do with that content. Copyright law has always included the concept of "fair use" which gives certain rights to people who aren't the owners of content, to do things with it without needing any authorisation from the copyright holder. Things like quoting for the purposes of comment, parody, personal use and the like. That's where Macrovision comes in, it effectively removes a person's fair use right to copy a portion of a video for commentary purposes, or to make a VHS copy of a DVD they bought so the kids can watch (and break) the VHS without hurting the original DVD.

While Macrovision is a nuisance, it is easily corrected using a "video signal cleanup kit" which can be bought from Dick Smith.

Since that time, the MPAA and RIAA have been hard at work dreaming up ever more oppressive means to retain control of the content after it enters the hands of the purchaser. Sony invented a thing called SCMS ... "serial copy management system" for their DAT drives, and it is also implemented in all consumer grade MiniDisc (MD) players and recorders. Basically SCMS is a simple tagging system for short intervals of sound, which says "copy once", "copy forever" or "never copy". The result is that your MiniDisc player may refuse to record on its digital input depending on what SCMS bits are coming down the line. The problem is that these SCMS bits are designed to protect the music publisher, and not you. You may find your equipment doesn't allow you to duplicate your own performance which you recorded digitally, because you don't have the special equipment needed to control the settings of these bits.

SCMS, like Macrovision, is easily stripped out of a digital audio signal, but you have to buy a device to do it, and you can bet your life that Sony won't sell it to you.

The RIAA last year attempted to produce a more sophisticated type of SCMS, which used "watermarking" techniques to alter music inaudibly so that consumer equipment could detect the watermark and refuse to copy it. Audiophiles were up in arms about it, as it basically means degrading the sound of the recording, however slightly (which all audiophiles swear blind they can hear!). Needless to say the watermarking technique is way, way out of the reach of the ordinary person to use to protect _their_ content; it is something which benefits music distributors exclusively.

Last year the RIAA issued a challenge to the general public: crack our watermarking schemes (by removing the watermark without affecting the sound content I guess) and win a prize. The prize was largely symbolic. I think they expected people would compete for the glory of being the winner, and I think they expected nobody to win (and would thus be able to claim straight-faced that their technique was uncrackable). Well, as it happened, all 6 or so watermarking schemes were defeated. The winning team could not claim the prize because the conditions of the contest required the answers to be a secret owned by the RIAA (and the team wanted to publish their results). Then when the team (led by Professor Edward Felton) attempted to give a public presentation showing how they had defeated all the watermark schemes, the RIAA threatened them with a lawsuit under the DMCA.

Which brings me to the DMCA ... "Digital Millennium Copyright Act", a piece of US legislation which basically makes it a criminal offence to sell or distribute technology which defeats a copyright owner's attempts to limit access to their content (however weak that "protection" may be). It's like you've bought a car, and the bonnet is welded shut. You're not allowed to look inside the engine, you're not allowed to modify the engine, and you're certainly not allowed to put the engine into a different car.

The DMCA has been used to jail a Russian programmer (Skylarov) when he visited the USA to give a talk on his company's program which removes the limits on reading Adobe's eBooks. Such program is useful for blind people, for example, because it allows them to read the books using their own talking software.

DMCA is also responsible for making it illegal (in the USA, at least) to link to a piece of software called DeCSS. DeCSS decrypts the contents of DVDs (almost all of which are encrypted using this scheme, which uses a weak 40-bit key). Note that DeCSS isn't needed to copy DVDs; an encrypted DVD can be copied without decrypting a thing. DeCSS is useful though if you want to watch DVDs on an operating system which doesn't have an "approved" viewer (all "approved" viewer programs have a secret key which is used to unlock the key on the DVD itself ... and the DVD cartel (basically the RIAA and the MPAA) control who will be permitted to have a key). Linux for example, needs DeCSS to watch DVDs because Linux users insist on open source for all programs and the DVD cartel want to keep their system secret. Even though it is known all around the world and has been incorporated into songs, printed on T-shirts etc.

Australia has our own version of the DMCA law which was introduced very quietly around March 2001. I don't have the details, but I believe it was enacted purely for Sony's benefit, to stop people chipping their Playstation consoles so they the console will play copied games. Whether or not people should be copying Playstation games is not the point, the point is that the customer has bought a hunk of plastic and silicon and it is offensive to know that the law prevents them from opening it up and doing whatever they want to it. Somehow the manufacturer (Sony) has got some say-so in a box which is owned by the customer. Realistically, to use the car analogy, if I open up the engine and I break it, then I have voided the warranty, but Toyota has no right to sue me for doing so. It's my car, and my risk.

This Australian law apparently catches Macrovision modifications in its scope too, making it illegal to sell a DVD player which has been modified to remove Macrovision, and I guess also illegal to commercially modify a player to remove Macrovision. I bought my DVD player 6 months before the law came into effect, so I have no Macrovision anymore, and it's just as well too, because I don't have a special A/V receiver so I must feed my DVD player's output through the VCR to get to the TV, which has only one video input jack.

(P.S. On this one I just went to CampsieHiFi's site again and read their full list of player modifications, and it looks as though they are removing Macrovision again. That's good news if it is true and I have sent them an email if they can confirm that).

Right now in the USA there's a bill before their legislature called CBDTPA. Basically the proposed law makes it a requirement of all computer hardware manufacturers to include copy control (read "copy prevention") circuitry in all consumer-grade computers and peripherals. This is another measure to protect Hollywood's revenue stream, not individual peoples' rights.

I hope you can see the big picture in the recent history I've outlined. It's a systematic attempt by very profitable content creators and content owners to preserve their very profitable revenue stream forever, by removing the rights of individuals, and turning them into mere consumers.

It gets worse ... the RIAA have also made noises about something they call "closing the analog hole" which seems to mean making ordinary computer devices like sound cards and video cameras illegal unless they contain special circuitry to detect watermarks and stop recording when a watermark is detected. Apart from the technical insanity of the concept, the mind boggles at the possibilities - like reports recording a political speech in which some background music is played and their digital recorders all shut down, or having a video camera stop recording a wedding because it happens to show a billboard in the background which contains some copyrighted content (which is watermarked). Some people have suggested that suggestions like this (which are clearly nonsense) are raised as straw man arguments so that legislators knock them down by proposing "compromise" legislation which is just what they wanted to achieve in the first place.

And I haven't even touched on the more ominous controls likely to become entrenched with HDTV, how Microsoft is working with hardware vendors and the MPAA/RIAA to provide what they call "secure audio path" (and secure video path) ... basically encrypted signals all the way to the speakers, even encrypting the monitor cable. It's just unbelievable the lengths to which these corporations will go to control what the people can do on their computers or sound systems, and the unfortunate thing is, that 99% of the population isn't techno-savvy enough to cut through the hype and the bullshit about piracy to see that there are some substantial threats to our basic freedoms imposed in these efforts.

There's a news site called Slashdot which carries a lot of articles about things of interest to techno-geeks. All the news related to online (and offline) rights and privileges is on a sub-site of theirs, http://yro.slashdot.org/.
The end