real fun in cutting-edge technology today lies in watching the powers that
be trying to stay that way. The last 20 years of beige box ascendancy has
given us a tool that promotes revolution and defies control. One of the
assets of a do-it-all machine is that the "all" is not always what the
creators had in mind. Watching the fuzzy edge of the personal computer
push is endlessly entertaining and always confusing.
Attempts at control
follow a few steps behind the current reality and are usually based on
traditional views of the order and nature of things. We are in that early
stage of content-battles that all wars must go through. We are attempting
to fight a war of bits and bytes based on the rules created for the last
great upheaval. Though the box itself is a descendant of the industrial
revolution, what the box is capable of threatens and challenges us all.
One of the thorniest
problems for content providers — from authors or musicians or performers
editors or artists' representatives or directors to publishers or music
companies or movie studios to database services or the information industry
firms or Internet service providers to librarians or record store owners
or movie critics — bits is bits and all bets are off. Digital content is
endlessly flexible and slippery. Providers all up and down the line wake
up to the fact that content itself may not be the cash cow they thought
it was. The real profits are in the control of the delivery systems.
at legal "finger in the dike" solutions have done nothing to clarify the
situation. An endless array of tools has been developed to create, reformat,
and capture digital content. Valuable properties have become digital gypsies.
Originals can be cloned perfectly. My bag of software tools is considered
by the some in the industry to be nothing less than a burglar's toolkit.
But I still consider them my way of using something I paid for in the most
convenient form for me.
There's Music in the Air
The music industry
vs. Napster offers a perfect case in point. The content lockdown supplied
by the advent of the CD audio format has been destroyed. Once the delivery
system is reduced to a bit stream, any real attempt to control the physical
media becomes pointless. Many factors combine to push a combination of
innocent capabilities into a potential corporation crippler. Peer-to-peer
networking, reasonable download times in a high broadband era, CD-RW units,
and the ability to change formats at the push of a key — all these technological
factors have combined with the perception of the music corporations as
fat cat pirates themselves to open a door and shock an industry.
The combined weight
of the Second Millennium giants were brought to bear on Napster and crushed
it. The name may well be reused, but the real Napster is roadkill. Yet
even as the corporate legal hammer descended, groups of Net weasels had
already moved the game up a notch. Napster's Achilles heel was its central
database. A central location offers one target. A corporate legal team
can hit you if you stand in one place long enough. The new Music Industry
nightmare is a structure that has no nexus, true peer-to-peer file transfer
that makes everyone involved a provider, and no transactional logs. There
are dozens of post-Napster next-generation, file-swapping tools available
For a look at what
is available in this area and a pretty good indication as to how far away
from the barn the horse really has gone, log onto http://www.zeropaid.com
and poke around. Zeropaid is just one of hundreds of clearinghouse sites
for file-sharing software, but a good indicator of what is going on in
the post Napster era.
Peerless Peers vs. the DMCA
— Killing "Cockroach Ads"
are few things more irritating than closing your browser after a session
spent swatting down pop-up, pop-under advertising only to find a pile of
unsolicited digital junk mail littering the desktop. These cockroach ads
(nice turn of phrase, bq) have met their match thanks to POW!, a free tiny
download from AnalogX [http://www.analogx.com].
This little jewel,
located in the Network section under "browser add-ons," is a perfect example
of utility elegance. POW! is the best 214 k of disc space I have ever spent.
It can be configured
to load to the system tray at boot up or left on the desktop to run at
your discretion. POW! sits in memory and intercepts attempts to open and
deposit pop-up and pop-under ads called by a Web page. If an ad does slip
through, you simply right-click on the POW! system tray icon, select the
window from a list of open windows, and add it to the list of "never agains"
by double-clicking on it.
If you live in
fear that you just might miss that price break on a mini spy camera or
if you simply love to learn what the advertising world will do this season,
you don't need POW!. If you prefer to be left in peace, download it now.
some very elegant utilities and makes them available for free. Take some
time to look around the site. There are a number of very tightly focused
and coded software packages that may just solve that problem you deemed
something you had to learn to live with. If you do find a jewel, please
drop Mr. X a line. He's one of the good guys.
sharing is not just about rebellious youth ripping off the latest 'N Sync
offering. From an information professional's perspective, it offers a raft
of interesting possibilities. My DSL provider (PacBell/SBC) provides a
whopping 2 megs of Net space for my personal home page in its basic service.
I can purchase more, but do I really need it?
Suppose I am providing
a list of clients with a variety of services, including graphics, how-to
video clips, audio files, documentation, online support, and feedback forums.
Some of the information may be very sensitive and, more to the point, needs
to be billable. A peer-to-peer capability would give me a very private,
locally controllable way to service these clients, with my storage capacity
limited only by the size of my hard disk. This use of the technology opens
up a raft of possibilities for services I can provide, but will I be able
to after the panicked corporations put their latest weapon to use, the
DMCA (the Digital Millennium Copyright Act)?
Now I am no lawyer
and cannot speak to the fine points of this legislation, like its constitutionality.
I am in the business of providing clients with information in a format
they can use. I am concerned with intellectual property rights and copyright
and do my best to honor them, but there is no bright line, no clear signal
when one crosses that line. The view from the information provider trenches
is very foggy at the moment, and the DMCA is making me reexamine my tool
The music industry,
ramping up for its next run at piracy, has made its weapon of choice —
for the moment — the DMCA. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act is a classic
example of panic law. It has all the elements of the blunt weapon, unenforceable
legislation of the Volsted act (Prohibition), War on Drugs type. It will
serve its purpose in the short run, but what will we lose along the way?
One minor example
is Judge Kaplan's ruling in the New York DVD Case (where 2600 publisher
Eric Corley was ordered to take down DeCSS and any links to DeCSS). CSS
stands for Content Scrambling System, a very weak encryption format used
for movie DVDs. DeCSS is a small piece of software that breaks the CSS
encryption and allows the reading of encrypted DVDs. It is currently the
only way to play legally obtained DVDs under the Linux operating system.
I purchased the media and have a way to access it, but is it legal? The
DMCA makes circumventing access controls wrong, regardless of the reason.
If your circumvention
intentions are grounded in fair use, go ahead. Fair use continues to be
protected by law under the copyright act, but making and providing circumvention
tools and even using these circumvention tools for legal fair use is no
longer allowed, thanks to Section 1201 of the DMCA. Does this make sense
Applying this rule
to videos could mean that, although recording The West Wing is protected
by law under the Sony BetaMax case that allows timeshifting for home use,
the use of the VCR machines to do so could be perceived as illegal. Hmm.
Does that mean Circuit City has become a "trafficker" in illegal goods,
by DMCA standards? For a raft of potential knee slappers in this vein,
do a Google search and prepare to be entertained. While you are at it,
do a search on DeCSS and the problem snaps into focus. Even a simple search
on "DeCSS download" returned over 14,000 hits.
But logic doesn't
appear to be the driving force behind this law; instead it is the need
for leverage, no matter how temporary, that the corporations seek. The
strategy is well-established. First, create an identifiable criminal class.
Do this by loosely defining the act that makes them a criminal. Do your
best to avoid test cases that will point up the inherent logic flaws and
constitutional conflicts for as long as possible. Pick your targets and
attack in force. Bring the full weight of legal fees and court costs to
bear on these selected targets, those that cannot match your deep pockets.
The actual content of the law or outcome of one case or the precedent it
creates is not as critical as its value as a short-term weapon.
The point is, what
else do you hit when you swing this club?
One of the tools
I use most is the great Musicmatch Jukebox 6.1 program [http://www.musicmatch.com].
This digital audio Swiss army knife has allowed me to access and catalog
my music collection in a variety of formats suitable for various playback
devices. I have always considered this usage well within the fair use provisions
of the law. Converting a retail CD audio into MP3 files for use in my Rio
500, re-sampling an MP3 file at a lower bit rate to conserve space, or
capturing streaming media for later playback has not kept me up nights
with visions of myself with a patch over one eye and a parrot on my shoulder.
Recently the music
industry has been flirting with various copy control schemes for CDs, all
of which have been defeated by various hacks available online. Does this
make the end result a fair use copy and legal, but the process of obtaining
it illegal? Is the existence of a transitional file in a temporary folder
a breach of the DMCA? When does a master key turn into a lockpick? Is that
a knock at my door?
Copyright law and
intellectual property rights are very critical issues. Compensation for
effort is what fuels the economy, but steam-driven legislation aimed at
light-wave technology will not solve the problems. It does provide a nice
living for the lawyers though and may keep them out of mischief in other
It remains to be
seen what effect DMCA types of legislation will have on those of us in
the information business. In an online world there are no true borders,
and once a capability exists, it cannot be put back in the bottle. One
of the most important tools of the trade is still personal integrity. In
the final analysis it's always personal.
e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.