Napster and DeCSS: Is it about free speech or free stuff?
I'm an open source, free software, and free speech advocate. But some of the catchphrases of the open source generation are really beginning to annoy me, as do many of the attitudes of the people who chant them and abuse them for personal gain. Take this mantra: "Information wants to be free." Horsehockey. Information doesn't want anything. People want information to be free. But face it: people want corned beef sandwiches on rye to be free, too. That doesn't mean we are entitled to them.
The fact is that our current system entitles us to some free information, and it requires us to purchase or license other information. You may not like the fact that some information must be licensed, but that's how it is. Those who want information to be free as a matter of principle should create some information and make it free. They should encourage others to do likewise. But what they shouldn't do is license or buy existing information that is not free and then cut it loose without permission. That's just plain wrong, and people who do it are demonstrating that what they are interested in is not free speech, but getting stuff without having to pay for it.
This is the problem I have with the Napster controversy. Napster is a fine technology that could be put to good use. But so far the controversy over Napster doesn't seem to be about free speech, but rather about free stuff. It's about a technology that makes it possible to circumvent the intent of publishing music on CDs. Napster is being used to distribute music that was never intended to be shared in such a fashion; so far, few people have suffered severe consequences, and that's the reason the controversy persists. But the situation could change.
Look, this music was intended to be distributed only via commercial media like CDs, with the expectation that you would buy the CD if you wanted to listen to it any time. If you want to share that music with your friends, you lend out your CDs. If you can't part with your collection, then you buy copies for your friends. That's the way the system is structured. Deal with it. If you want the system to change, then change it the way Linux has changed the complexion of software. Change it by recording new music with musicians who buy into your new way of distributing music.
Let me put this another way. If this is really about principles and not greed, then I would like to issue a challenge to you Napster advocates who insist that this is a matter of free speech. I suggest you create a new peer-to-peer networking system for software. I'll call this hypothetical system Crookster. I challenge you to make all your favorite commercial software applications freely available to anyone who downloads the Crookster client. But don't do this anonymously like the warez doodz and crackers do. Do it for the cause, because you believe that information truly wants to be free.
And here's a tip for those who genuinely want to draw media attention to your righteous cause. I suggest you start by sharing your copy of Windows 2000 with the world. I guarantee you'll get coverage on all the major networks.
Which brings me to my point. Have you noticed that few (if any) Napster advocates are arguing that it should be legal to purchase a copy of Windows 2000 and share it with a community of Windows fans on the Internet via a peer-to-peer networking system? Why not? Is it because there are no fans or potential fans of Windows 2000? Or is it because people know that if they tried it, Microsoft's lawyers would have them thrown in the hoosegow before they could finish next morning's Wheaties?
People are already addressing the issue of free software the right way. Instead of subverting an existing system of commercial software, they are creating new, open source software and publishing it. Others are trying to find ways of making money by selling and supporting this free software.
Likewise, if people want music to be free, they should create free music and find new ways to distribute it. And if there's a way to make money on this, someone will find it. We all have the right and opportunity to create new ways of doing things. We do not have a right to subvert existing systems just because we have the technology to do so and want free stuff.
This shouldn't be necessary, but let me make a few things clear to prevent an onslaught of angry letters from people who assume I've implied things I did not mean to imply. I believe everyone should have the right to make copies of any CD or DVD for backup purposes. I would also not restrict you from making a copy of a CD or DVD for purposes of convenience, so that you do not have to schlep the original copy back and forth from house to car, for example. I wouldn't even have a stroke if I were a Sony executive and I found out someone was listening to a copy of a CD in his house without first calling his wife on the cell phone to make sure she wasn't listening to the original CD in the car at the same time.
Are any of the above situations against the law? Perhaps, but only Bill Gates would lose sleep over people making backup copies of a legitimately owned CD or accidentally using a CD in two places at once. The rest of the executives are simply irate over people who don't want to pay for a legitimate copy of a CD and deliberately subvert the system in order to get the content for free.
Second, let me assure you that I am perfectly aware that record companies often make obscene profits without a large enough portion going to the artists. But that is an entirely separate issue from copyright infringement, and needs to be addressed separately. You can't get the record companies to pay the artists better by stealing their work. So don't bother trying to justify something like the use of Napster to share copyrighted material based on the fact that recording contracts are unfair. That's just plain silly.
Freedom to watch DVDs
Having said all that, those of the free-everything greed generation aren't the only ones at fault here. There is plenty of idiocy to go around. The Motion Picture Association of America(MPAA) and DVD Copy Control Association (DVDCCA) have to share the Oscar for Most Stupid Actor in a Copy Protection Controversy when it comes to DeCSS and DVDs. If you take a peek at our prior LinuxWorld articles on the topic or visit the OpenDVD site, it is pretty clear that the MPAA and DVDCCA are shooting at the wrong target by aiming at DeCSS, the decryption code for the Content Scrambling System (CSS).
Assume for a moment -- and I think this is a false assumption, personally -- that CSS has made it more difficult to make illegal copies of DVDs. Even if this were true, all CSS does is force crooks to copy a DVD disk bit for bit. Our DVD thieves end up with a second DVD that is still encrypted, but plays fine on a DVD player. In other words, CSS just makes crooks focus on technology B (bit-for-bit copying) instead of technology A (decryption).
As long as the MPAA and DVDCCA want to protect DVDs against illegal copies, the correct answer to the DeCSS controversy is for vendors to stop wasting their time protecting the encryption of data on DVDs and spend more time and money tracking down and arresting the people who are making and distributing those illegal copies.
As for the rest of us, we need to decide if we're going to take a stand or cooperate with the existing specification. In other words, if you truly object to the encryption of DVD content, then don't buy DVDs. Personally, I think that will accomplish absolutely squat, since plenty of people don't give a hoot how DVD content works as long as they can play movies on their DVD set-top boxes.
And you can count me as one of them. I have a small collection of DVD movies, three of which I have enjoyed watching more than once (The Matrix, Mystery Men, and Twister, in case you're interested). And if Gunther-Wahl ever produces DVDs of Angry Beavers cartoons, I'll buy them all and wear them out (although I'll make back-ups first, if possible). I really enjoy the high quality of DVDs, and it doesn't bother me in the least that the content is encrypted.
At least, it didn't bother me until I wanted to play a DVD on my Linux box. But between you and me, as frustrating and unfair as I think it is that Linux users are at a disadvantage, I won't be taking any razor blades to my wrists if it takes another year or two before Linux can play DVDs without having to jump through hoops (see Resources for a Linux DVD HOWTO). And it won't give me any more gray hair than I already have if the only legal way to play DVDs on Linux is to have the DeCSS decryption done in hardware or provided as a binary library with no source code.
Sure, it is silly and unnecessary to persist in encrypting DVD content or to keep the DeCSS code proprietary and secret. But come on, folks. There are a lot more important battles to fight, and better ways to fight them. And the best way to promote free is by creating things that are free.