Searcher
Vol. 9 No. 9 October 2001
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Swinging the Big Bat: Power Versus Technology
by Dave Rensberger
The P.N. Gwenne Company
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The 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 to 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.

Recent attempts 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 right now.

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.
 
 
POW! Killing "Cockroach Ads"
There 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.

AnalogX writes 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.

Peerless Peers vs. the DMCA
Peer-to-peer file 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 chest.

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 to anyone?

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 sensitive areas.

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.



Dave Rensberger's e-mail address is drens@pacbell.net
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