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The Battle Over DVD Encryption

Two members of the MIT community may be on the path to a heated legal debate over six lines of code they have written. The Perl script developed by Keith J. Winstein ’03 and Marc H. Horowitz ’92 provides a method for decrypting DVDs. The Motion Picture Association of America, a group of major Hollywood studios, is fighting to protect the copyrights that they hold on their films.

The issue at hand is section 1201(a)(2) of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. This section of United States Code states, “No person shall manufacture, import, offer to the public, provide, or otherwise traffic in any technology, product, service, device, component, or part thereof, that ... [has as its primary purpose] to circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to [copyrighted material].”

The MPAA claims that distribution of information on DVD decryption is against the law. The MPAA has yet to file suit regarding Winstein and Horowitz’s program, but it has filed suit against individuals and organizations involved with DeCSS, so named because it breaks the code known as the Content Scrambling System, the encryption method that protects DVD content. According to, the DVD Copy Control Association has listed more than 450 defendants (many simply as “Doe”) to a suit filed last December, including a T-shirt distributor selling apparel with program code on it.

There must be some line where such “devices” no longer have a primary use as a copyright infringement device. The legislation does not draw such a line, and the courts have yet to weigh in on the matter. Furthermore, computer programs can provide a tool for learning. This board believes that, on its educational merits, such code should be considered to have a fair use.

Furthermore, as Horowitz said, “We are one iteration of Moore’s Law from being able to watch movies with this code as if it were any other player.” Being able to watch DVDs is a right that one should have with the ownership of the disc. There is no reason that other programmers should be deprived of the ability to add to Winstein’s and Horowitz’s open-source code while memory catches up to make watching films seamless.

This case involving DVDs is a glaring example of a conflict between producers and consumers of copyrighted material. The First Amendment gives us the right to spread information, be it for academic use or for the purpose of critiquing, yet some copyright holders are restricting the flow of legitimate information. The license agreement for Microsoft’s SQL Server 2000, for example, limits consumers’ ability to critique the software: “You may not disclose the results of any benchmark test.” Respecting intellectual property rights is beneficial to society, but should not go to extremes. Individuals who copy and sell DVDs and other copyrighted material should be prosecuted. However, we should not stifle the rights of law-abiding individuals in an attempt to protect copyrights.