Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Geeks Gone Wild: Faces User Revolt Over HD-DVD Crack

Yesterday, the computer geek world was abuzz with news that someone had managed to break the encryption code on the next-generation DVD system, HD-DVD.

The code was posted all over the internet (a Google search for "09 F9," the first four digits of the code turns up 62,000 results). One site it was posted on was, a popular and somewhat left-leaning news community. Digg, however, was contacted by Hollywood lawyers who warned them to delete the post or face legal action under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Digg deleted the post and in the process set off a firestorm of user protest within its community. Immediately, everyone started posting the code into non-related entries and denouncing Digg for being a censor. It got so bad that the site shut down entirely.

While this was going on, people were tracking the controversy and also posting the code around the internet. Finally, Digg reversed course and Kevin Rose, the founder of the site, posted the code on the company's blog with the following statement:

[T]oday was a difficult day for us. We had to decide whether to remove stories containing a single code based on a cease and desist declaration. We had to make a call, and in our desire to avoid a scenario where Digg would be interrupted or shut down, we decided to comply and remove the stories with the code.

But now, after seeing hundreds of stories and reading thousands of comments, you’ve made it clear. You’d rather see Digg go down fighting than bow down to a bigger company. We hear you, and effective immediately we won’t delete stories or comments containing the code and will deal with whatever the consequences might be.

If we lose, then what the hell, at least we died trying.

That stopped the revolt in its tracks as the users began praising Digg and Rose for their courage. Digger "Codplay" spoke for many:

Actually, this whole thing gave me a lot of hope for our society. Sure it's a minor issue, but enough people felt strongly about it that they stood up and told everyone else why they thought the situation was wrong. As is just proof, enough people stood up that it made a difference.

Thanks to both sides. And now that we have proved that we are a strong community, let us get back to our other geeky stories...

Is that the lesson here? Partially.

What really happened is that Digg realized two things: media outlets can never do something that a majority (or even a vocal minority) opposes. That's relevant in the context here where we discuss the left's control of the media in this country.

Does it also prove that libertarian ideals cannot work in practice, as Bryan at Hot Air asks? Or does it prove that the liberal left cannot tolerate other people disagreeing with it?

Digg's reversal wasn't entirely in response to community demand, however. I'm not a lawyer but I believe that since the code was leaked out onto numerous web sites and that Digg wasn't the first site to have it, any kind of DMCA action against Digg will be doomed to fail. Therefore, Digg had nothing to lose by not caving to its community.

There's another lesson here, for the Hollywood community: it was only a matter of time before HD-DVD was cracked. Copyright protection methods are always doomed to fail, because there's always a better hacker out there, especially when you implement copyright protection schemes that infringe on fair use principles.

Update 15:00. Charles Johnson at LGF weighs in on the controversy:

I’ve had this discussion so many times with so many people that my eyes start to glaze over when it comes up.

You either respect the concept of intellectual property, or you don’t.

A whole lot of people don’t even know the concept exists.

Some of this is healthy; challenges lead to stronger systems. But the troubling part here is that, in way too many cases, the insistence on “fair use” is coupled with a thuggish and ignorant disregard for the intellectual property of the creators of the work.

I'm inclined to agree on the question of "should" people respect the law on this, however, if IP law (or more especially companies' content usage agreements) becomes overly restrictive, "should" becomes a moot point.

Everyone should have the right to make copies of their music, software and movies for personal use. It's the natural order of things, ever since humans began circulating information in written form.