fight over DVD
descrambling and the legal issues involved will seemingly not go away, as the
battle gained a new combatant this week when a tool to help decrypt DVDs was
released onto the Internet.
The program, called
can simultaneously decode and play DVDs. Qrpff is seven lines of Perl code
that, when paired with an encryption key, removes CSS, the Contents Scramble
System used to provide digital protection to DVDs and ensure that they are only
viewed on approved devices. The code was released as the appeals phase of the
DeCSS trial is beginning to gather steam. DeCSS is another program that removes
CSS and allows for copying or viewing of DVDs.
Motion Picture Association of
America (MPAA), the industry trade group made up of the major
movie studios and the instigating force behind both DVDs and CSS, filed suit
2600: The Hacker Quarterly, a magazine
dedicated to phone and computer hacking, over DeCSS and won a
decision in August. But 2600, along with its legal backer, the
Foundation, are appealing the verdict. The U.S.
Justice has since
fray, siding with the MPAA in a brief filed in late
The MPAA is "aware of [qrpff] and is taking a look at it," according to
Rich Taylor, an MPAA spokesperson. Taylor declined to go into further
Legal scholars and open-source software advocates have decried the
rulings against DeCSS and the law that such rulings affirm--1998's
Copyright Act, or DMCA--as a threat to traditional consumer
fair use rights. Fair use is a section of law that allows for quoting and
noncommercial sharing of copyrighted materials. DVDs and CSS abridge these
rights, they charge, because they require that legally purchased DVDs can only
be viewed on certain approved players. DeCSS was created as DVD playback
software for Linux, an open-source operating system that lacked such a player
at the time. (At least one has since been
Qrpff was created by
Massachusetts Institute of
Technology (MIT) computer science student Keith Winstein and
MIT alumnus Marc Horowitz as a demonstration for a seminar Winstein taught at
the college called "Decrypting DVD," which discussed the technical and legal
issues surrounding the DeCSS decision and the DMCA, Winstein said in an e-mail
Winstein says the program "helps demonstrate the preposterous
incongruity" of barring the spread of such computer programs, as has been done
with DeCSS. Computer programs, and their source code, ought to be protected as
free speech, he argues. Qrpff is a good illustration of this issue because
anyone "can write those seven lines of code on a piece of paper and hand them
to you," which would, presumably, make them protected speech.
Furthering the free-speech argument, Winstein cited a recent comic strip
that posed the question, "Why is it perfectly legal to post bomb-making
instructions on the Internet, but it's not okay to post code that descrambles
Qrpff was created to make a legal point rather than a technical one,
"There's not a lot of technical need for a seven-line slow Perl CSS
descrambler. The real 'need,' then, is probably in helping to make the argument
that no constitutional law could restrict the production and distribution of
this kind of expressive speech."
Of course, others, notably 2600's Eric Corley, have made the same
argument and lost. Winstein isn't taking any chances.
"I think there's a reasonable case to be made that even if whatever is
enjoined by that injunction in New York [the DeCSS injunction] is in fact
illegal, I'm still in the clear. However, I'm not stupid. If they take action
against me, I'll get a lawyer," he wrote.