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 DVD’s and HD-DVD’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-DVD’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.

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3 Comments on 09-f9-11-02-9d-74-e3-5b-d8-41-56-c5-63-56-88-c0

  1. It’s actually a 128 bit number. ’88-C0′, say, would be 16 bits long.


    It’s a tempest in a teacup, really, ’cause ultimately the codes and keys never disappear (witness DeCSS code). The **AA organizations will flail about legally, and in the short term hurt people, but in the longer term, they invariably lose, so long as they fail to understand the problem that they want to solve, which is to prevent access to material they want to sell to people (ie allow access). They are fundamentally opposing goals. The only way they can truly keep it out of the hands of those who end up not paying for it, is to not distribute it at all. Maybe they’ll eventually take thier ball and go home.

    In some ways, I don’t view that possibility as an entirely bad thing.

    Look up Ed Felton’s Freedom To Tinker blog, he talks about it on an ongoing basis.

    BTW, I don’t think you can trademark numbers; witness the nameshift of windows from 98 to XP – pratically motivated, as I understood at the time, because versioning numbers weren’t trademarkable, but ‘XP’ could be, as can ‘Vista’.

    What the processing key can be, is a trade secret, which is protected only for as long as it is secret. Once in the public domain, I don’t think there’s provision that a trade secret can be ‘shoved back in the bottle’, per se, though those that release the secret can be penalized. What the **AA orgs fail to realize, is that those secrets are not secret (both practically and legally) whenever you give them to the customer in a disc player.

    But IANAL, I am Metal Tim…

  2. “What the **AA orgs fail to realize, is that those secrets are not secret (both practically and legally) whenever you give them to the customer in a disc player.” – Metal Tim

    True, and thus you see the heavily lobbied DMCA kick in and a lobby to have the same introduced in Canada et al. Just recently Canada was put on a “Watch list” by the USA for copyright violations against – you guess it – the movie industry. It is a crock and an attempt to get you, the consumer, to purchase and repurchase the same content over and over!

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