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DeCSS makes the funny pages

Popular comic strip ridicules DVD judge

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The world's most illegal computer program made an appearance on the comics page this week, and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) isn't laughing.

Two consecutive installments of the popular syndicated comic strip "The Boondocks" slammed opponents of DeCSS, an open source program that allows users to bypass the scrambling system used to protect DVDs. The strip appears in 250 daily and Sunday papers in the US, according to distributor Universal Press Syndicate.

DeCSS was the target of a lawsuit filed by the MPAA last year, which ended with federal judge Lewis Kaplan in New York ruling that the program was created in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Kaplan ordered defendant Eric Corley, editor of 2600, the Hacker Quarterly, to remove the program from his publication's Web site, rejecting the argument that computer code is speech protected by the First Amendment.

The court went on to prohibit Corley from even linking to sites that published DeCSS. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is appealing the decision on Corley's behalf. The ACLU and the American Library Association are among the groups that have filed briefs in support of Corley. The Justice Department, and, more recently, the NFL and the Major League Baseball, have taken the MPAA's side in the controversy.

There's little doubt where The Boondocks' creator Aaron McGruder stands.

The 26-year-old McGruder's critically-acclaimed comic strip centers on two grammar-school-aged brothers transplanted from Chicago to live with their grandfather in the suburbs. It frequently deals with issues of race, and is often outspoken and controversial. "It's created a lot of dialog between readers of newspapers, editors and comic page historians," says Universal Press Syndicate spokesperson Kathy Kerr.

This week's strips depicted older brother Huey, a strongly opinionated civil libertarian and Ralph Nader-booster, surfing the Internet while lecturing a friend on the evils of corporate greed.

Huey began the week focused on the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) legal assault on Napster, siding squarely with the music-swapping site. But by Thursday, the young revolutionary had moved on to the somewhat more obscure DeCSS controversy, when he found a copy of the program on the Internet.

"I found the DeCSS code that breaks the encryption on DVDs!," the character exclaims.

Friday's strip, available online from uComics, demonstrated that McGruder has a surprising command of the details of the case.

The strip is almost entirely obscured by a black stripe with the notice "CENSORED" in bold, underlined letters. "This comic contains numerous references to the DeCSS code used to bypass the Content Scrambling System of DVDs, which, by order of Judge Lewis Kaplan, is illegal to reproduce in any way," reads the text beneath.

"We apologize for the inconvenience, but speech that damages the profits of our corporate friends is NOT protected by the First Amendment. Thank You."

"I think most people would agree that the movie industry has been a strong defender of the First Amendment," countered MPAA spokesperson Emily Kutner.

"Obviously Mr. McGruder is following the lawsuit, and he thought it was an interesting topic for his piece this week," said Kutner. "Personally, I like Doonesbury."

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