The Truth about the DVD case

(last updated March 5, 2000)
DeCSS, from the beginning: A presentation given by Tom Vogt at HAL 2001. He , which makes a nice background for people who wonder what all the recent legal fuss has been about.

The following was written by the author of BladeEnc, an mp3 encoder. The original is available here.

The truth about the DVD case

(last updated March 5, 2000)

  As many of you probably already have heard from the news, a 16-year-old Norwegian boy named Jon Johansen has recently been charged with copyright violations for cracking the DVD Content Scrambling System (DVD CSS) and publishing a piece of code for doing so (called deCSS) on the internet.

Some of you might also know that it's two large organizations called Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA) and The DVD Control Association (DVDCA) that has sued him and that he might end up in prison for as much as three years if he is found guilty by the court. They have also sued a large amount of individuals who have helped distribute deCSS on the net.

But what most of you don't know is the fact that the charges brought against him and the others are completely incorrect and that these organizations have a hidden agenda with this witch hunt. In fact, Jon's actions are both understandable, moral acceptable and legal. I will here try to explain for all of you what exactly Jon has done and why this case is so important.


The reasons for reverse engineering

The movie on a DVD disc is encrypted. In order for a DVD player to play the movie it needs to first be decrypted, using one of many decryption keys. These keys are guarded by an organization called the DVD Control Association (from now on just referred to as DVDCA) and is considered to be their "trade secret". In order to get a key from them you need to first be accepted, then sign a contract detailing what you may and may not do with the key and then pay an unknown sum of money. Without a code you can't make a product that plays a DVD movie. Most people know that a very good and cheap way of playing DVDs is to do it on your computer. A typical monitor gives you a more clear picture than all but the most expensive TVs and a PC DVD-player is a lot cheaper than a stand-alone player.

The only problem is that the DVD-player in a PC doesn't have any of these decryption abilities, so therefore you need a piece of software that has been blessed by the DVDCA. This kind of software is available for Windows and Mac, but not Linux, BeOS, Solaris or any other operating system.


The cracking begins

The sad part was that the DVDCA and the creators of these "Software DVD Players" didn't seem interested in supporting these less common Operating Systems, leaving their users without the ability to watch DVDs on their computers. But the Linux users didn't despair, they are used to be ignored by the big corporations and solve their problems themselves. It's not a coincident that an unproportionally large number of Linux users are technically skilled programmers and hackers.

So they did what they had to in order to get their DVDs to play under Linux, they reverse engineered one of the windows players, examined how the encryption worked and started to write their own DVD player. And since Linux development typically is done in a very open and collaborative way with individuals all over the world taking part, they did as they always have done, they posted the source code on Internet.

At this point it is very important to remember that reverse engineering is nothing illegal, in fact, the right to reverse engineer a competitors product actually enjoys some special protection in many countries legislation since it helps to spread innovations, keep down the prices and establish standards.


The big guys scramble for their guns

What happened next is well known, both the DVDCA and MPAA got furious. The DVDCA recognized that their source of income would go down the drain if they didn't do something quickly (if the technology was freely available, nobody would pay their licenses) and the MPAA saw it as an attack on their intellectual property, something that would assist pirates in copying and redistributing their movies. They are now together trying to perform a witch hunt for anyone who redistributes the deCSS source code. Sites that provides or links to the code are receiving threatening letters from their lawyers and more than a dozen people have been sued.

The DVDCA's response is easy to understand, they fight for their power and, in the long run, their existence. But I don't think anyone really will be sad if they have to go, nobody loves a parasite.

The MPAA's position, representing large parts of the film industry, is a little bit more defendable though. After all, the film companies do spend billions of dollars producing films and should have the right to expect economical compensation for their work and investments. If deCSS would lead to a large increase in film piracy, a large and appreciated industry would be threatened.

But I'm pretty sure that isn't the case and so do most people who knows about these issues. Let me present some facts:


Some facts about DVD Piracy

  • Technically you don't need to decrypt a DVD in order to copy it. If you make an exact copy of the disc (bit by bit), the DVD player won't be able to tell the difference and will gladly play your pirate copy.
  • Pirate DVDs have been available for at least a year and can be purchased from various places (don't ask me where, I won't tell you). It's obviously not these professional pirates that MPAA wants to stop, but you and me from making an extra copy (which we to a certain extent are allowed to).
  • Movies are already being pirated and distributed over the internet as Video CDs (VCDs), only their large size (about 1.5 GB per movie) has prevented this phenomenon becoming as popular as MP3s. If you have the right contacts you can get most movies before they are released on Video or DVD.
  • Pirate tools for extracting and decrypting DVD movies were available before deCSS was released, so deCSS has definitely not brought something new to the table for the pirates. The pirates didn't need the formula to descramble the movies, they just needed to mock up one of the existing players so that it gave them the output instead of sending it to the graphics card (at least that's how I believe they did it). I would rather think that many pirates are mad at Jon for getting these corporations to scramble for their guns, the pirates will be watched more carefully in the future now when these organizations knows that their secret is out...
  • The cost of writeable DVDs are today higher than the cost of a DVD movie. If you want to copy the contents of somebody else's DVD you still need to compress it (and thus lose quality) in order to make it economically worthwhile and compared to that its much more convenient to just make a VHS copy.

Personally I'm sure that copying of film content in a few years time will be as common as copying of music is today, but that's not mainly because the deCSS code was cracked. Looking at the facts above we can be sure that this will happen as soon as internet connections gets fast enough and data storage gets cheap enough, no matter if the CSS code ever was cracked or not.


Not all copying is illegal

We should also not forget that not all copying is illegal. You have the right to make a few copies for your personal use of any copyrighted material you have purchased. Personally I have a few copies of my favorite CDs, one on cassette for my car, one in MP3 format on my computer at work and one on my computer at home (call me lazy, but it's more convenient to just press a button than go into the next room to get the CD, besides I'm a bit worried that I somehow will damage my beloved CDs if I use them too much). These are all legal copies, I use them only for my own listening purposes and I have paid for that privilege.

It's quite likely that I might want to do something along the same lines once data storage is cheap enough (although I wouldn't watch movies when I drive or work of course) and that's probably where MPAA's strong reactions against deCSS comes into the picture.


The importance of deCSS

DeCSS can (when some more work has been done to the program) easily provide anyone with legal means to make their own legal, 100% accurate copies of films that they legally own and they don't want that. Both the music industry and the film industry wants you to pay for every single copy you have of the same material and preferably for every time you play or view it as well. Just take a look at the support a system like DivX (rightfully dead now) enjoyed from the movie industry and the stir-up we have seen each time a new recordable media like the cassette player, DAT, MiniDisc and MP3 has caused. Not to mention each time a company has been sued for "making a product that assists pirates" like Diamond being sued for the development of the portable Rio MP3 player.

Many film companies don't want their customers to be able to make backup copies of the movies they have purchased, they want you to buy a new one when the previous one has been damaged! And every time we see a new media being developed, we see stronger and stronger efforts from the industry to make it impossible to copy the content.

It's important to stress deCSS' importance in empowering the law obeying citizen to make a backup copy of his film. The pirate tools I mentioned above can do the same, but not legally since they are hacked versions of commercial programs. If the DVDCA and MPAA manages to convince the court to rule against deCSS, we will be deprived of our right to make copies of the material we own. It doesn't matter if it's our legal right to do, we won't have any legal tools to do it with. This can then very easily set a precedence and we can be sure that whatever audio storage technique that will replace the CD will have the same kind of protection, making it impossible to copy or play through an "unblessed" device.


But there's even more at stake...

But that's not all that's at stake here. If they win we will also have suffered a big loss in our right to both reverse engineer and innovate and it will be yet another example of big corporations crushing the small individuals by blowing up enough smoke to cloud the judgment of both the jury and media. They try to make this a case of copyright violation when it clearly isn't and they are using their money and company strength to get it their way. A clear example of this is the way they had the Norwegian police to raid Jon's home, confiscate all computer equipment and keep both him and his father for 6-7 hours before releasing them. Both Jon and his father are now awaiting a trial.

Luckily, has Jon and the rest of the prosecuted received a lot of support from fellow computer enthusiasts and a non-profit organization called The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). The DVDCA and MPAA probably thought that they could run over whatever defense the defendants could put up (the wording of their accusations and demand for injunctions during the first hearing of the first accused ones suggested this), but EFF helped provide the defendants with qualified lawyers.

But more needs to be done and I therefore urge you all to do one or more of the following things:


What you can do to help

  • Sign this petition in support of Jon and the rest. The petition has now been closed. They got more than 10.000 signatures. Many thanks to all who participated.
  • Download the deCSS code from this link. That is the source code that the DVDCA and MPAA wants to stop by making it illegal to distribute it. Even if you don't know how to program or have any use of it, please download it and keep it on your computer. If enough people have access to this code we might get the DVDCA and MPAA to understand that their attempt to censor this information is futile and drop the charges against those who are on trial for having distributed it. If you have a homepage, please put it online.
  • Support the EFF by joining them, making a donation or linking to their site. They are a valuable organization that works with important issues such as your freedom and safety on the net.
  • Urge people you know to do the same.

This is a great opportunity for you to give something back for the work I've put into BladeEnc. I'm a strong individualist, believing that the right for every person to investigate, learn, innovate, produce and share their work with whoever they want is as important as democracy and free speech. Therefore I feel very strongly for this case.

Thanks for taking your time to read this.

Some useful links if you want to read some more about this case: has a lot of facts about DVD encryption, deCSS and the legal aspects on their page, including a journalist fact sheet and an open letter from one of the defendants to a journalist who had written a badly researched article.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has of course also some information on their homepage.

A feature article on the subject with some enlightening comments from readers.

Eric S. Raymond, one of the most prominent Linux supporters have written a strongly worded article on the subject at

A Wired news story on the subject. Also contains links to other Wired stories on the same subject.

Jason Kroll has written a long article called "Crackers and Crackdowns" which puts this case in a much bigger picture. It might be too controversial for most of you to swallow, but it clearly describes the world I live in. If you want a deeper insight into what drives me to spend many hundred hours every year to develop and support free software, I suggest you read this article and carefully thinks about what it says.

Last modified: January 12, 2005 @ 5:05 MST
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