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A few months ago while shopping for an iMac DV, I faced a dilemma. It wasn’t the matter of sticking with Apple, but about whether I should buy it locally. Aside from issues of availability, price and OS language, there was the DVD bugaboo.

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The majority of DVD-compatible computers and players manufactured locally can only play DVD discs that are coded for Region 2 (that’s us) or those that are free of region codes (which are few). Anyone can order videos of foreign films several months before release in Japan, but DVD region coding has put up a new barrier. Trapped in Region 2, not only do I have to wait for DVDs to be released here (with subtitles I don’t particularly need and at prices I don’t like), but I am also limited in my selection. Likewise, certain discs of Akira Kurosawa or Takeshi Kitano films, which have been made for an overseas audience, are also out of reach.

In the big picture, I’m in the minority, just like Jon Johansen, a 16-year-old Norwegian programmer who was unable to play DVDs on his Linux machine. Johansen and two colleagues cracked the encryption code of DVDs (called CSS, for Content Scrambling System) by “reverse-engineering” and then uploaded the source code of his utility (DeCSS) to the Net.

The Hollywood suits, namely the ones at the Motion Picture Association of America and the DVD Copy Control Association, weren’t happy with this. Lawyers representing seven major studios came out of the woodwork as soon as sites began to mirror the code across the Web. Legal complaints were registered against 72 sites for “illegally” linking to the code. However, it became — as one clever fellow called it at Slashdot.org — a futile game of “whack the mole.” Hit one and another just like it pops up elsewhere. Of course, the Net has more than 72 moles.

The MPAA also went after the first mole, though he didn’t singlehandedly distribute it. Last month Johansen and his father were detained for seven hours, his PCs confiscated as evidence. (And this was in Norway; talk about the long arm of the law). Johansen could face a fine and two years in prison.

Reverse-engineering itself, for the sake of interoperability, is actually legal. The key issue in this court case is whether Johansen engaged in a misappropriation of trade secrets and violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Furthermore, the DVD consortium’s complaint accuses the moles of being “part of a scheme to defeat DVD encryption software which thus enables users to illegally pirate copies of DVD videos.”

If I may address the court, it’s crucial to understand that DeCSS wasn’t made for purposes of piracy. DeCSS simply made it possible for Johansen to play discs on his Linux machine.

The fact is, DVD piracy isn’t economically viable at this point, nor technologically accessible. Rewritable DVDs are too small to hold all the data and blank discs cost more than store-bought DVD movies. Of course that might change, and indeed pirated versions of DVDs are showing up. (And note that bona fide pirates aren’t touting their achievements on the Internet.)

Some supporters say that the court case(s) will test the constitutionality of the DMCA. Does it hinder a form of speech (computer code) and the rights of the consumer? Others have questioned whether the regional codes themselves are not violations of WTO trade rules.

So why has MPAA made it difficult for “minorities” to enjoy DVD? Hollywood wants region coding because it reassures their distributors abroad, which is where the budgets of many overblown action movies get recouped. (If the MPAA can use a 16-year-old for their scapegoat, I hereby elect Der Arnold). The code allows control over distribution schedules as well as censorship. MPAA president Jack Valenti claims to be protecting the creativity of artists, but the encryption is more about protecting the Palm Springs estates of studio execs and the major players in the consumer-electronics industry.

It was well known that CSS encryption was extremely weak. No doubt Johansen is a smart kid, but it would have happened sooner or later. One CNN report cited legal scholars who believed that by implementing intentionally weak code, it made it easier to single out blatant violators. Weird logic I know, but anything is possible at this point.

(The more I look at this, the more I feel like Johnnie Cochran on “South Park”: “What’s a Wookie doing on Planet Ewok? It don’t make sense.”)

Based on news reports you would think that Johansen was the only cracker out there. If you sniff around a bit, however, it’s easy to find software patches for a variety of platforms as well as outlets selling stand-alone “code-free” versions of name-brand DVD players. The circumvention of codes is already a reality.

Nevertheless, Johansen has become a martyr, one who’s giving interviews on Slashdot.org, and calls are being made for Hollywood boycotts. It’s no surprise that the rebellious Linux community is rallying around this cause, but the significance extends beyond operating systems.

I admit that the voices on CSS protest pages are a tad shrill (is this the return of the Merry Pranksters or a harbinger of cyber-“Fight Clubs” to come?), but the doublespeak coming out of the MPAA begs for mud pies. Has Johansen’s code derailed the push for DVD? Are content providers going to switch back to VHS and CD-ROMs because they’re more secure? C’mon.

Hollywood’s agenda needs to be aired. Ironically, there was a forum on DVD held last week in the U.S., but the MPAA/DVD side failed to make an appearance. This does not bode well. Remember what happened in Seattle, guys? It’s happening on the Net.

DVDs have become a lightening rod issue, just like MP3s. But on a larger scale it points to the role Open Source philosophy will play in the digital economy. Unfortunately, for everyone involved, as long as the opposing sides disagree on the definition of free (Hollywood=no profits; Open Source=better code), lawyers will be the only people coming out ahead.