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SIPB Members’ Hack Draws Legal Controversy

By Brian Loux


Usually six lines of text won’t get you more than a poor poem, but it thrust Keith J. Winstein ’03 and Marc H. Horowitz ’92 into the middle of a major controversy. The two members of the Student Information Processing Board created a very small program that decodes DVDs and has reopened the debate on computer code, copyright laws, and freedom of speech.

“We see source code as a recipe for a process, like a cookbook recipe is a process for food, and we think that is protected” by the First Amendment, Winstein said.

As expected, the program has drawn fire from the Motion Picture Association of America, the trade association for the motion picture industry.

“It would not make sense to me to design a code that purportedly breaks current copyright regulations,” said MPAA spokeswoman Emily Kutner. She said that the MPAA would say nothing further than “we are aware of the code and we are looking at it and discussing it.”

Kutner seemed skeptical that the code actually worked. Horowitz and Winstein said that they have shown the code in operation during a seminar held over IAP.

“Our main point was to show the incongruity of six lines of code, something that can be written on a napkin or put upon a T-shirt and declaring it a circumvention device,” Winstein said, also calling such reasoning “preposterous.”

Each DVD player has a decoder

All DVDs are created as scrambled information that can only be unlocked by a DVD player, preventing the user from manipulating the DVD video or saving it in unencrypted form. In the past, programmers have designed more complicated programs to crack these codes.

During the months of November and December, Winstein and Horowitz designed a program that would descramble the DVD code and subsequently allow one to watch DVDs on free software.

“We were programming in Perl, and one of the things to do with Perl is to see how much you can condense your code,” Horowitz said.

The two immediately took up the challenge and were able to condense their program initially into seven lines of code. Over the next month, the seven lines became six.

Horowitz noted that “in order to descramble the DVD, you will need a key that is not a part of our program, but is available through other software.” These codes were initially discovered when an anonymous German hacker reverse engineered a commercial DVD decoder.

Code featured in IAP seminar

During IAP, Winstein created a seminar to discuss the present legal and technical aspects of today’s computer code copyright regulations. “On the first day we generally discussed the various weaknesses and flaws of the algorithm,” said Winstein, who headed the seminar. During the class, he handed out the six-line code that descrambles all DVDs.

The next portion of the seminar included a panel discussion with Winstein, MIT professor Harold Abelson PhD ’73, professor Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard Law School, and David Barr of C-Cubed Microsystems, a member of the DVD Copy Control Association. “We then discussed the legal ramifications of codes like this and the feasibility of restricting the distribution of algorithms, or computer recipes, in the future,” Winstein said.

MIT not involved in dispute

Though no official legal charges have been filed against Winstein and Horowitz, the MPAA may soon file suit. According to section 2.1 of the the Guide to the Ownership, Distribution, and Commercial Development of MIT Technology. the Institute will not take part in any legal dispute.

Winstein said that “our original goal was to play DVD under a GNU/Linux Operating System, which we accomplished.” In regards to possible disputes, he said, “This will hopefully add to the debate about whether code is free speech or not ... we think our First Amendment rights will be upheld in this instance.”