Quietly over night, a revolt happened. It was not on the morning news, it was not covered by CNN, and no shots were fired, but it happened. In the over night hours Digg.com (a popular user submitted news site) received a torrent of postings about one thing and one thing only.
The thing they were posting about was a number and in this case a simple 16 bit hexadecimal number. So what is this magic number that would have hundreds of thousands of people posting stories to digg.com, Slashdot.org, and other social networking sites like facebook? The number is actually a key and a very important key at that. In the realm of DVDâ€™s and HD-DVDâ€™s having this key is like being given the master key to every house in your town. The key is the processing key for HD-DVD and in the hands of a talented programmer would allow HD-DVD movies to be played or copied to any computer, or device. Copies that could be uploaded and shared online but at 20Gb a file it is unlikely you will see that happen any time soon.
Most readers are likely thinking “so what?” and wondering why this is so noteworthy. Well it relates to the use of the DMCA to take down blogs, postings to social networking sites, and any other reproduction of that number. The Movie Producers Association of America (MPAA) have been handing out take down notices like they were candy to prevent this number from becoming available. They view it as a part of their intellectual property and thus subject to copyright. It is a part of their digital rights management (DRM) strategy, which restricts playback of HD-DVDâ€™s to approved devices. If you are a Linux computer user, or a home theater hobbyist who wants to build their own media server, you would be prevented from have HD-DVD functionality so since these are not approved devices. E.g. there is no Linux (or Mac I believe) HD-DVD players.
So what about this revolt? About a month or so ago this key was discovered and posted on websites, subsequently the MPAA started a campaign to have those postings removed. The removals – most notably from digg.com itself – quickly became seen as attempts to censor users to protect corporate economic interests and the users were reposting the number, and links to other sites with the number faster than they could be taken down. Eventually the founder of Digg, Kevin Rose, bowed to the will of his user base and said they would stop removing postings and deal with any consequences that might result. In his words “if we lose, then what the hell, at least we died trying.”
This is a perfect example of both DRM and the DMCA at its worst. It is a tenant of copyright law that words and numbers cannot be copyrighted, they could be trademarked, but not copyrighted. It is exactly these kinds of draconian laws that the US is pressuring on other countries, and exactly the kinds of laws the current government is considering introducing as part of its copyright reform. If you reverse engineer, find a security hole, or discover a way to break encryption that is applied to copyrighted material you can be prevented form sharing that information with laws like the DMCA. This is exactly what has happened with the HD-DVD processing key and many other products such as the DeCSS code that allows DVD playback. It leaves a chilling effect on those who wish to build a better lock by understanding how to break the current one, a process often pursued in academics.