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DoJ sticks its nose in 2600.com DeCSS appeal

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The US Department of Justice (DoJ) has been granted permission by the Second US Circuit Court of Appeals to intervene in the case of Eric Corely aka Emmanuel Goldstein, publisher of hacker zine 2600 which got into hot water for posting, then linking to, copies of the banned DeCSS utility which defeats the hopelessly-trivial CSS (Content Scrambling System) used in DVD encryption.

The crypto scheme is so weak that it was circumvented in late 1999 by then sixteen-year-old Norwegian programmer Jon Johanssen who said he created DeCSS because he wished to view DVDs on a Linux box and there was no industry-authorized player available. The only alternative was to defeat CSS.

The mighty Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) lobbying outfit promptly went ballistic, and rather than develop a robust form of encryption, successfully sued in district court to have Johanssen's embarrassing utility banned from the Web, citing various prohibitions in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) which forbid circumventing or cracking even the most trivial electronic copy controls.

The DoJ states its pro-industry concerns up front in its petition to intervene in the case.

"The Internet and its supporting technologies have wrought a paradigm shift in the means of conducting trade. With its valuable potential for global product distribution at far lower transaction costs, electronic commerce has also created new business challenges, particularly for vendors of intellectual property," the Department laments.

It's the DMCA that government lawyers will most likely point to in justifying the ban when they argue in court.

But the DMCA provides several exceptions, and the DoJ actually points to one in its court filing: "The statute permits an individual to circumvent an access control on a copyrighted work, or, in limited circumstances, to share circumvention technology....to achieve interoperability of computer programs," which is precisely the claim made to justify the development of DeCSS.

But the Department doesn't think the appeals court should buy into that one. "This lawsuit is really about computer hackers and the tools of digital piracy," it argues.

Which is another way of saying that, while the interoperability exception applies, there is such potential for DeCSS to be misused that it needs to be suppressed because of what else might and probably will be done with it.

It's a sad argument, tantamount to claiming that the general populace is criminal at heart, and needs the corrective pressure of the government jackboot on its neck, lest its natural larcenous tendencies swell to grotesque proportions and give rise to anarchy, or at least an inconvenience for the entertainment industry.

Heaven forbid. ®

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