I raised more than a few eyebrows in a recent “On the Desktop” column when I suggested that in order to get the intentionally crippled DVD playback in the community version of SUSE Linux 10
working correctly, you may have to break a few laws.[ See http://www.linux-mag.com/2005-12/desktop_01.html
Now, I’m a law abiding citizen and a stalwart believer in things like patents and intellectual property, and I’m very much against piracy. It really annoys me when people steal cable and satellite TV (especially when they have the financial means to pay for it outright). I also firmly believe that people who copy music and video and actively engage in unauthorized distribution should be punished according to the law, with penalties commensurate with the size and nature of the crime. Piracy increases costs for all of us, because it requires the constant and expensive development of anti-piracy software and hardware. But as with virtually any technology, anti-piracy technology can be reverse engineered, so it’s usually cracked pretty quickly after release, leaving publishers and manufacturers to return yet again off to the drawing board to try to secure the access technology for the next generation of player equipment. It’s a vicious cycle.
But preventing duplication and prohibiting the distribution of knowledge of how to decode these media formats are two entirely different things altogether. If I buy a DVD or a music CD, I’d like to be able to play it on my hardware and software platform of choice, be it a DVD player, a DVD-enabled video game console, or a PC. So if DVD playback isn’t natively supported on my Linux PC because the decoding process isn’t available, an Open Source programmer should be able to provide that feature for me if they write the decoding software to do it. I bought the DVD and I have the right to play it in my household, provided I’m not charging for admittance.
But the Digital Milennium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA) has changed the conventional wisdom of what people who buy software or multimedia works should be allowed to do. These days, if you live in the United States or a country that’s signed the 1996 World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) treaty, and if you if you intend to write and distribute means “to descramble a scrambled work, to decrypt an encrypted work, or otherwise to avoid, bypass, remove, deactivate, or impair a technological measure,” you can be fined huge sums of money and go to jail.
Now, the argument could be made that if you want to run DVD’s on an Open Source operating system, then it’s perfectly acceptable for a private citizen to go out and buy completely legal, licensed commercial DVD player software that permits them to do it using Content Scramble System (CSS) software licensed from the originating DVD Copy Control Organization.
Companies like Red Hat and Novell which sell commercial, boxed versions of Linux have the means to license such decryption mechanisms and make their operating systems fully capable of playing those types of media, and its their prerogative to do so if they expect their offerings to compete with other operating systems like Windows and Mac OS X that have that capability. That being said, free, community versions of Linux shouldn’t be handicapped from playing encrypted media formats simply because they aren’t commercial products and don’t have the financial means to buy legal licenses of the decoding mechanisms.
Given the worldwide proliferation of Open Source operating systems, preventing access on these systems to content that is legally purchased is a losing proposition. In the age of the Internet, it is highly unrealistic to be able to suppress the dissemination of information — nations can try, but ultimately will fail.
The DMCA is a bad law, yet one we’re ultimately going to have to live with for a long time. But free versions of Linux and other Open Source operating systems are also going to be around for a long time, and corporations and entities that license intellectual property are going to have to live with them, too.
I believe that it’s possible for such free systems to legally play these media formats without its end users having to bear the burden of having to buy commercial software to accomplish it. But it would require the cooperation of the licensing entities themselves and the free software projects, perhaps though some sort of joint effort or mediating organization that could be set up to provide free, compiled binaries or libraries for such systems that would also prevent the unauthorized duplication of copyrighted works. It’s not a perfect solution, since it violates the spirit of Open Source, but for us to be good citizens, it may be an accommodation we have to make.
Maybe there’s no solution to the problem and users of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) can’t expect a free ride to play media that they legally own because of a few (OK, more than a few) bad apples that steal and distribute copyrighted works. And that’s just too bad.
Until we all figure out how to untangle this mess, some of us who engage in perfectly legal activities and choose to use community software will inevitably have to thumb our noses at the law.
Jason Perlow recently escaped a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, try sending email to