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Film biz delivers legal threat to DeCSS-linking Web sites

Uses hammer to crack a nut

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The film industry has launched a major legal assault on Web sites promoting DVD rippers following revelations that the DVD encryption algorithm has finally been cracked. Lawyers in the US and Europe have already threatened Web site owners with court action if they fail to remove either the software that can copy a DVD's movie files to a hard drive or links to that software. As the Webmaster of the Norwegian office of DVD and MPEG specialist Sigma Designs put it: "I was contacted by an attorney from the firm Simonsen & Musaeus [representing the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA)] today. A lot of bla bla bla and that if the link to DeCSS was removed, no further action from their side would be taken. I know very well that they would not win in court, but they could make a big mess out of it. I simply do not have the time, nor money, to go up against these people." Meanwhile, US-based site DVD Utils was threatened with legal action by the MPAA, again threatening legal action if the site failed to remove DeCSS, the DVD ripper that first enabled DVD files to be copied to hard disk. Like Sigma Designs, DVD Utils complied with the MPAA's demands. The MPAA's strong-arm tactics are reminiscent of moves made earlier this year by Nintendo to prevent Web sites from linking to or providing the N64 emulator UltraHLE, and 3dfx's similar moves to limit the availability of 'wrappers' -- applications that allow games written for 3dfx's Glide API to run with non-Glide 3D accelerator cards. Common to all three actions are the use of the threat of legal action to scare sites into doing the industry's bidding, despite the unproven nature of the plaintiff's case. Of course, the only way to challenge the MPAA is to allow it to take its case to court, but few Webmaster can afford the legal fees or the time that such an approach might take. And while the outcome of any legal action would not be guaranteed to go in the MPAA's favour, it's certainly not certain to go against the organisation either. We've not seen the licence terms that accompany a DVD, but we'd be very surprised indeed if it didn't contain words to the effect that "unauthorised duplication is forbidden". Many of the DVD fans who have protested against the MPAA's actions insist the software is used solely to back up DVDs, but that's a pretty lame justification: is there really a need to back up a non-volatile medium? And who backs-up sell-through VHS tapes, which is a volatile medium (in its broadest sense)? The MPAA's argument holds little more water -- DeCSS and utilities like it can be used for and encourage piracy. Encouraging piracy, as far as we know, has yet to be declared illegal, and as for the act of duplication itself, that's the responsibility of the duplicator, not the provider of the means for duplication. And in some territories, such as the US, Austria and Germany, users have a right to make copies for personal use only of any copyright material. The really grey area here is that DeCSS doesn't merely copy the file, it decrypts it first, and the MPAA's lawyers could argue that that takes it beyond mere duplication -- it's not the software equivalent of a tape deck, in other words. Again, though, grey areas like this are only clarified through legislation or the courts and, as we've seen, few people are able to challenge the MPAA's viewpoint that way. Meanwhile, the MPAA is acting on behalf of the motion picture industry, which, in a sense, only has itself to blame. A number of cryptography specialists have already noted that DVD's CSS (Content Scrambling System) encoding system was not sufficiently strong to prevent it being compromised by a brute force approach, let alone the failure of one DVD licensee to encrypt its decode key. And having inflicted regionalised DVDs on consumers, the film industry really can't expect much support in its actions. ®

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