A Question of Control
by David Calderwood
by David Calderwood
You might have heard already, but a vast grass-roots guerilla war has occurred right under our noses. I first heard of it when my computer scientist son forwarded to me a link to a technology site detailing the chaos created by the posting of a series of numbers on the Internet.
A series of numbers?
Yes, that's right. Special numbers, to be sure. As predicted by anyone who knows anything about software, the encryption code used by HD-DVD and Blue-ray DVD discs was cracked, and the enterprising folks who did it disseminated the numeric key. In no time at all the key turned up on site after site, and those sites were apparently submitted to the website digg, which serves as a sort of popularity meter for Internet content.
Quickly, Advanced Access Content Systems (AACS LA), the company that licenses the encryption technology, hit any and all sites that published the key with cease-and-desist orders, and digg.com attempted to comply by removing content submitted that contained the key code.
The results were extraordinary.
The community that uses digg.com attacked it with a veritable mountain of submissions containing the key code in myriad ways. After this crushing experience, the owners yielded to their user community's desire that it was better the website go out of business than knuckle-under to the RIAA and MPAA.
Already, AACS LA has announced it is revoking the key that was compromised, which will require people with HD-DVD and Blue-ray machines to download updates from AACS LA's site so that their players will continue to decode future HD-DVD and Blue-ray content on disks.
How long will it take for the people who cracked the last code to crack the new one? After all, part of their drive to crack the code is to enable the playback of disks on computers running Linux, for which no "approved" software player has yet been offered.
This highlights a crucial debate raging today. How best can people engaged in creation of content (music, movies, news, etc.) continue to sell that content in a digital age? The old model was coercive and adversarial. The power of government (copyright office and courts) was used to threaten anyone who might wish to duplicate content produced by someone else. Customers in this model are all treated as potential competitors and thieves. Technology for copying was poor which gave a mighty advantage to the state-enforced system, but new technology has eliminated this barrier.
This has resulted in some fairly foolish efforts on the part of copyright holders who have sometimes gone after fan sites for posting partial excerpts of their works or even, in some cases, for fans adding content of their own using the characters created by the copyright holders. Instead of treating such extensions of their work as free advertising, content holders treated their best, most enthusiastic customers as criminals.
This is not uniformly the case. There are content producers on the web who give away much of their product for free, and offer compilations of their work or higher quality video copies for a price. Some sell advertising space on their websites as well. In this model fans and consumers are seen as partners, even friends, and the outcome is that even given the opportunity to freely copy the content, many fans feel morally obligated to pay for content offered for sale. They willingly pay out of a feeling of mutual respect.
Thus are the battle lines drawn between the old way, typified by the MPAA and RIAA who defend their sand castles of old with the fist of the state by bludgeoning their very own customers, and the new way, where producers of content rely on an atmosphere of mutual respect and cooperation with their customers to protect their investment of time and talent.
Short of unplugging the Internet (which has already been suggested, surprise, surprise, by government-funded researchers), the old way is doomed. Whether the dinosaurs like the companies that own movie studios can adapt to this reality is an open question. In the meantime all we can expect from this ham-fisted effort to defend the old way is the chaos of crushing a handful of Jell-O: nothing ends up held in the hand, but the cohesion of the Jell-O, too, is smashed.
Such is always the outcome of war.
May 3, 2007
Copyright © 2007 by David C. Calderwood