The Common Good
May-June 2000

I Crave Control

by David Batstone | May-June 2000

The battle over who owns the Net rages on.

In late January, Norwegian police raided the home of a 16-year-old student who rattled the U.S. movie industry with a software program he co-authored that breaks the security code on DVDs, the latest generation of video players. Jon Johansen, who hails from Larvik, Norway, had posted the program on his father’s company Web site, and it quickly spread like wildfire across the Internet. The son and his father, Per Johansen, face up to three years in prison and stiff fines if convicted.

Only one week earlier a freshly launched Canadian Web site called iCraveTV was hit with strong legal action initiated by an alliance of U.S.-based movie studios, TV networks, and sports leagues. iCraveTV is one of the first Web sites to broadcast complete TV signals over the Internet, showing uncut, uninterrupted streams of 17 broadcast television stations from the United States and Canada.

Under Canadian law, such rebroadcasting is apparently legal, at least for cable and satellite broadcasters. iCraveTV claims the Net is just like cable and that it, too, should have the right to offer TV. As far as the U.S. broadcasters are concerned, it’s blatant copyright infringement, and they aimed to make a legal example of iCraveTV to dissuade copycats. In late February iCraveTV settled the lawsuit by agreeing to stop rebroadcasting TV programming, at least for the time being.

"This kind of cyberspace stealing must be stopped, wherever it occurs, because it violates the principles of U.S. copyright law," Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) chief executive Jack Valenti said following the iCraveTV lawsuit, a message he repeated nearly verbatim a week after Johansen’s arrest.

The two cases, though quite distinct in detail, are shaping the future of the Internet. In every which way it can, the entertainment industry is not only trying to claim copyright on the content it creates, but to control the media by which it is distributed as well. From music (fighting MP3, the online—and downloadable—music format) and film (fighting the portability of DVD) to television (fighting open transmission), the industry feverishly resists the free flow of content over the Net.

These events also highlight the global reach of powerful companies to exert legal pressure on threats beyond their national borders. The Hollywood-based MPAA, an association of the seven largest U.S. movie studios, filed a police complaint against Johansen in early January. The agency responsible for computer and economic crime in Norway then raided his home and confiscated two personal computers and other technical equipment before charging him on copyright violation.

The Johansen incident is perhaps less muddled than the iCraveTV situation, given that the Canadian company frames Web broadcasts with its own advertising, causing U.S. interests to claim foul on revenues earned. Johansen’s arrest, on the other hand, and the MPAA’s flurry of more than 500 cease-and-desist letters to Web site operators offering his de-scrambling program, should serve as a wake-up call for anyone concerned about the open access to information on the Net.

Digital versatile discs (DVDs) can be viewed on properly equipped computers and DVD players but are encrypted to prevent copying the content to a computer hard drive. The MPAA claims that "hackers" who distribute the decoding program are enabling the production of illegal copies of movies for distribution.

But Johansen argues that the MPAA has misled the public into believing that his de-scrambling program allows people to more easily copy DVDs. He claims that the encryption (security coding) actually gives the movie industry a monopoly on who gets to make DVD players. Therein lies the motivation for his actions: He and his colleagues developed the code to help make a DVD player available for the Linux operating system, and not only for the Microsoft Windows operating system as is presently the case.

The larger backdrop here is that Linux is an open source system—written to operate with a broad range of other software programs—that is readily available for free, while Windows is a proprietary system for which Bill Gates and friends pull in a steady income. Here’s a tough question: Which model, the open source system or the proprietary one, is the entertainment industry interested in pursuing?

Information is not always power. Just ask any librarian. In the digital age, wealth and power accrue to those who control the system logics by which data is exchanged.

DAVID BATSTONE, a founding editor of Business 2.0 magazine, is executive editor at Sojourners. He writes a monthly column on the digital economy for eCompany Now magazine.

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