Can’t Watch My Own DVDs Without Being Called a Criminal

The Chicago Sun-Times ran an article last week about DVD Jon cracking Google’s new video service.

Johansen, 21, became a hero to hackers at age 15, when he posted software called DeCSS to unlock the Content Scrambling System, or CSS, which the film industry used on DVD movies to prevent illegal copying. The act made Johansen a folk hero among hackers.

I wrote my response, and they published it! Below is the unedited version that I sent to them. I think the version they printed makes me seem like a better writer as it is more focused and clear.

Your article about DVD Jon claimed that he was a hero to hackers. While he is, I am not sure your readers were reading “hackers” correctly and assume that he is simply a criminal.

DVD Jon’s work has made it possible for DVD players to run on Gnu/Linux systems. He managed to decrypt the copy protection method used on DVDs that he himself owns so that he could play them on his own software or back them up, which is allowed under Norwegian law.

The MPAA, RIAA, and other groups have managed to take more and more rights away from customers. In exchange, we haven’t really gotten anything. The Digital Millenium Copyright Act makes it a crime to just own the means to circumvent copyprotections, and this law was passed under the thinking that the creators need the overreaching protection to continue to innovate. Instead, there has been less innovation from these industries and more lawsuits. You can even look into how the DMCA has been abused by companies such as Walmart and Best Buy. Actually, I would enjoy reading that expose.

They don’t want me to watch my DVDs in players that aren’t approved by them. DVD Jon made it possible. He’s a hero to people who don’t want to stay stuck with RIAA, MPAA, Microsoft, or Apple approved systems. There should not be anything criminal about playing my legally purchased DVDs on Gnu/Linux in an open source player. Unfortunately, it is.

By the way, people taking newspapers and running off with them isn’t the same thing as downloading a movie. In the first case, there is one less newspaper to actually sell. In the second case, there is no theater that is now missing a film canister. It isn’t theft. It’s copyright infringement. Stop spreading misleading statements from the media companies.

Gianfranco Berardi

Regarding the newspaper theft vs. movie copyright infringement, the link above will take you to a different set of commentary that the Sun-Times editors made regarding the recent court decision against Grokster. The part I was referring to:

The issue now is twofold. First, file-sharing systems will continue to evolve, and the music and movie industries will have to continue fighting them in court.

Next, doing so will help in the larger battle to make the public understand that musicians, writers and artists — and the much lower paid technicians and others who support them — have a right to make a living just like anybody else. People do not, generally, grab newspapers from newsstands and hurry off with them, first because the vendor might give chase, and second because it is wrong. That second understanding, regarding stealing music and movies, is gradually filtering into the public, who initially reacted to file sharing with the typically greedy reflex of anyone confronted with apparently free goods: They took them. Now they are not so quick

I’m tired of the media companies telling us that copyright infringement is the same as theft. The courts say it isn’t, but these companies insist on misusing the term and misleading the public. It’s called deception. These companies would have you believe that every CD album downloaded off of a file sharing network doesn’t just mean one less CD sold (the logic doesn’t follow if you stop there either). They want you to believe that the downloader is somehow taking money from the recording artists.

Let me ask you: the last time you “stole” software or music, did your bank account increase, even by a few cents? Did you find extra spare change in your pocket? Money in your wallet?

And if we aren’t talking money but instead are talking about the nebulous “intellectual property” rights of the artist, did you somehow gain the rights to reproduce said software or music?

No. You didn’t. Because you weren’t stealing. You were infringing on copyright.

Not that I advocate it. Copyright infringement is a serious offense. I’m just getting tired of the public’s seemingly willful desire to be ignorant of the situation.

On the other hand, I think that the situation today is heavily in favor of the copyright holders and leaves the customers and users with little of the rights they originally had.

The Digital Millenium Copyright Act is an example of a law that changes the nature of copyright. You can still have all of the fair use rights you gained over the years. But if you try to circumvent the copy protection measures put in place, no matter how lame they are, you are committing a felony. A felony! To play DVDs you already own! To create MP3s and OGG Vorbis files from your own music collection! Hell, just having the means to circumvent the copy protection is a felony!

You’re allowed to play with all of the toys in the toy store, but you can’t open the front door because the handle is locked. Owning the key is a felony.

So while I think copyright infringement is wrong, I also think that the copyright owners today have too much power over the customer.

I don’t buy my music from iTunes or any company that sells music that is under Digital Restrictions Management (DRM). I buy them from places such as Audio Lunchbox. They get my money because they treat me like a customer rather than a criminal.

It’s sad that the bar has been lowered to the point that customer service means “We won’t assume you’re guilty!”