When I was a college student, I took a course in computer programming. This was back in 1980, when computers were refrigerator-sized boxes. Things were different back then.
To write a computer program, I'd have to go to the engineering building on campus and walk into the basement, where several computers hummed away in a refrigerated room behind a wall of glass. I'd sit down at a desk in front of a mechanical contraption that looked something like a typewriter, reach into my backpack and pull out a stack of shrink-wrapped punch cards that I'd purchased earlier from the student bookstore and stick them into the machine.
As I typed each line of my program, the machine would punch out little rectangles (the now-infamous "chad") from the cards. When I was finished, I'd hand the deck over to a grad student in charge of the computer system, and he would put it in a tray along with everyone else's decks. The tray led to a card reader that would load the programs into the computer.
When the computer got around to executing my program, I'd get my results printed out on several pieces of green and white paper. Nine times out of ten, there'd be a bug in my program. I'd have to figure out the problem and then go through the whole process again. It might take all night to write even the simplest of programs. Needless to say, the computer room was where I picked up my lifelong coffee habit.
Even though writing programs this way could be tedious, I always felt a thrill because I was making a computer do something. Because it was programmable, the computer was a magic machine that could be made to perform any task imaginable, once you figured out how to tell it what to do.
Fast-forward twenty years. I carry around a pocket-sized computer than can do everything that the air-conditioned behemoth in the university basement was able do, plus a whole lot more. It can play music, streaming video, and games. I can choose from thousands of different programs to run on it. If I want to, I can even write programs on my pocket computer. And the thrill of having a machine that can do anything, limited only by the ingenuity of the programmer, is still there.
But thanks to a new bill that's been drafted in the US Congress, that thrill could go away. The entertainment companies, fearful of losing control over their digitized content, are backing a proposal for a frighteningly restrictive law that would put an end to computerized devices as magic machines. The law would force technology manufacturers to build use-restrictions into everything they sell, turning the magic machines into crippled boxes that serve as little more than cash-producing gadgets for the entertainment industry.
The "Security Systems Standards and Certification Act" (SSSCA), a bill proposed by U.S. Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings (D-SC) and Ted Stevens (R-AK), would make it a crime for anyone to manufacture interactive devices without government-approved copyright protection. As it's currently written, the SSSCA would outlaw virtually every kind of consumer electronic device and personal computer imaginable.
The penalties are harsh: in addition to civil penalties, the SSSCA creates new a federal felony punishable by five years in prison and fines of up to $500,000 for the first offense. Manufacturers are not the only ones who would have to comply with the new law - users of the devices who disable the copy protection would risk a stint in a federal penitentiary, too.
An ongoing fight
This ugly bill is just the latest in Hollywood's long string of attempts to squelch unauthorized song, video, and e-book copying by controlling the way people use digital content.
When Sony introduced the Betamax videocassette recorder in 1975, Universal Studios and Disney sued Sony, alleging that recording television programs infringed on their copyrights. After a long legal feud - in which the entertainment company conjured up all sorts of nightmare scenarios where theaters shut down, TV networks crumbled, and actors were forced to beg on street corners for crumbs of bread - the Supreme Court ruled that home video recording for private use did not constitute copyright infringement. (Looking back, it's now clear that it was foolish for Disney and Universal to fight Sony, because both entertainment companies now make far more money from video sales than from box office receipts. New innovations always open up new opportunities to make money.)
In the early '90s, when digital recording technology started coming on the market, Hollywood again launched a full-blown campaign to halt the technology. This time Hollywood won. The Audio Home Recording Act requires digital audio device makers to pay royalties on the sales of devices and tapes and disks, as well as include copy protection that prevents making copies of copies. As a result, both digital audiotape (DAT) and mini-disc recorders have never enjoyed the same popularity as less-restrictive technologies. You could argue that the entertainment industries shot themselves in the foot by closing a potentially huge market for selling music.
Undoubtedly the worst law, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), was passed in 1998. Aimed at preventing copyright restrictions in the age of the Internet, where everything from weather forecasts to live video webcasts of rock concerts can be reduced to strings of zeroes and ones and sent anywhere on the planet in a fraction of a second, the DMCA made it illegal for anyone to tamper with the encryption technology used to keep people from making unauthorized copies of copyrighted material. The law may sound fine on the surface - after all, whoever holds a copyright is entitled to defend it.
In the best interest of who?
But the law goes much further than that. First, it kills the idea of free-use, by making it illegal for someone to defeat a copy protection scheme in order to make a perfectly legal backup copy of a song, DVD, or e-book, for example. Second, it makes it illegal for anyone to even discuss the methods a company uses to encrypt its content.
Edward Felten, a Princeton computer science professor felt the sting of the DMCA when the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) threatened him with a lawsuit if he presented a research paper about an encryption method being touted by the music industry as uncrackable.
The irony is that Felten (who ended up canceling his scheduled presentation at the Fourth International Information Hiding Workshop in Pennsylvania rather than risk being sued) and others had been invited earlier by the music industry to attempt to crack the encryption scheme. When Felten and his team were successful in doing so, the music industry tried to stop him from publishing the results.
Felten isn't the only computer professional who has been burned by the DMCA. This fall a Russian programmer was arrested at a computer conference after demonstrating his program that broke Adobe's ebook encryption technology. Ever since Dmitry Skylarov's arrest, several European computer scientists have canceled scheduled trips to the United States, citing fear of arrest for violating some vague aspect of the DMCA law. In effect, the DMCA has frightened computer security researchers into questioning the legality of their chosen careers.
But the draconian DMCA still isn't enough for Hollywood. They complain that hackers can defeat encryption schemes and anonymously distribute their code-busting software over the Net to millions of people in the blink of an eye. And they're right. It's easy to log onto a search engine and find a program that will unscramble DVDs so you can copy them to your hard disk and trade them with other people.
Once a software genie gets out of the bottle, there's no putting it back. That's why Hollywood is pressing for the SSSCA. It will move the copy protection from the software, which is easy to crack, to the hardware, which makes it nearly impossible to crack. A digital content player with SSSCA technology in it would refuse to play any song or movie that had been copied illegally. It would turn the device from an open system to a closed one. The long-term consequences of such a move would be disastrous.
The beauty of an open system is that innovative people will find ways to improve the system that the original creators never anticipated.
Look at the World Wide Web. It was conceived as a way for researchers to share documents. It was never envisioned as a system that could sell products and services, offer customized news reports, play videos and animations, and allow real-time chat. All that stuff was created by people who came along and saw an opportunity.
If the Web hadn't been open, is there any doubt that it would look a lot like Minitel, the French online service that launched in the early 1980s? At the time, Minitel was hailed as a cutting edge technological marvel, offering its seven million subscribers 25,000 different services, from train ticket reservations to pornography. But Minitel was a closed system, unlike the open Web, where anyone can create a site and offer it to the world. While Web users around the world were logging on with $500 high-speed color computers, Minitel users were stuck with small screens, bad keyboards, and slow connection speeds. Because Minitel was closed to outside innovation it lost miserably to the Web.
If the SSSCA is signed into law, it will be like a Minitel Midas, turning everything it touches into a closed, dead-end system. Sure, Hollywood might be able to squeeze a few more dollars out of users in the short term, but in the end they'll lose out big, along with the rest of us.
Mark Frauenfelder is a writer and illustrator from Los Angeles.