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Real Dialogue: The Tech interviews Jack Valenti

By Keith J. Winstein

Jack Valenti, the iconic 82-year-old who has headed the Motion Picture Association of America for the last 38 years, spoke at the MIT Communications Forum last Thursday. The MPAA offered The Tech a chance to ask Valenti questions after his talk, and -- as a former Tech news reporter interested in technology and copyright -- I got drafted.

Valenti is an incredibly polished advocate for the movie studios. He has numerous legislative and regulatory successes to his name, and his stated commitment to honest debate (he spoke passionately several times about his commitment to the “ideal of civic discourse” and his disgust at Washington, D.C.’s lack of it) is admirable.

But we don’t have a real debate on copyright issues. We have rival camps that rarely understand each other. Virtually everybody I know and encounter on the Internet thinks Valenti’s signal accomplishments are bad. He can claim credit for the anticircumvention provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which make it illegal to build your own DVD player and well-nigh impossible to watch DVDs legally under the GNU/Linux operating system, as well as the Federal Communication Commission’s Broadcast Flag, which will make it illegal or virtually impossible to build your own digital television receiver or, again, watch HDTV under Linux.

Everybody in Hollywood, and everybody in Congress, seems to love these things. There is little compromise, meeting of the minds, or mutual understanding, between these two sides.

Three years ago, I organized an MIT IAP class and invited Valenti to come. (He politely declined.) When the MPAA called to ask if I wanted to talk with him for ten minutes last week, I finally had my chance to take a shot at reaching some tiny mutual understanding.

I found Valenti woefully unfamiliar with the arguments of “our side” -- the same arguments that “we” wank about every day on Zephyr, on Slashdot, and in 6.805 (Ethics and Law on the Electronic Frontier), the class I TAed for Professor Hal Abelson.

A compromise, or at least a solution to these issues that doesn’t involve outlawing all tinkering and all independent engineering, seems to be possible: we’re just not getting through to each other. The dystopia of Richard Stallman’s “The Right to Read” at is not an inevitability. But if we can’t manage to have a real conversation with “the other side” -- and a longer one than my ten minutes with Valenti -- that’s where we might be headed.

Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

The Tech: You’re described by various people as the best lobbyist ever. Do you have any tips for the other side, about how they can achieve better victories in the legislative area?

Jack Valenti: I hope that I’m a good persuader, that I’m able to make advocacy of a cause that people say, “You know, that makes sense.” ‘Lobbyist’ has a connotation to me that gives me little shivers. But I like to believe that I try to make things simple to understand. And frankly, if I can understand it, then I figure everybody else can understand it, because I am not a technologist. ... But I try to make things simple and clear as I can, and I think that helps you persuade other people.

TT: Everybody I know thinks the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the Broadcast Flag are awful. And everybody in Congress disagrees. This does not lead to good debate and good public policy, when people can’t even talk to each other. How can we have a good debate on these topics?

JV: I don’t know. I go on forums, and panels, and Rich [Taylor, an MPAA spokesman] does the same. We’re available to anybody. I never believe in hostile debates. That’s not my style. I believe that we ought to talk objectively about it. I think for anything that I’m advocating, I’m willing to be in an open debate with anybody about it. Because if my ideas have no bottom, then they ought not be even heard.

The broadcast flag -- if you are in your home, then you can copy anything that’s on over-the-air television to your heart’s content. The only time that you will know there’s a broadcast flag is if you try to take one of those copies and redistribute it on the Internet. Then, the flag says, ‘No, you can’t redistribute it.’ But you can do everything you’re doing right now -- you’ll never know there’s a broadcast flag. Well, why would people object to it?

TT: I’ll tell you, because I’m an engineer, I’m an engineering student, and this year I built a high-definition television, from scratch. But because of the broadcast flag, if I wanted to do that again after July 2005, that would be illegal.

JV: How many people in the United States build their own sets?

TT: Well, I’m talking about engineers.

JV: Let’s say there are a thousand. But there are 284 million people in this country. You can’t have public policy that is aimed at 100,000 people when the other multi-multi-millions are also involved. You can’t do it that way.

TT: Okay, let’s take a different example. Four years ago, you said that people who use Linux, which is about a million to two million people, who want to play DVDs, should get licensed DVD players and that those would be on the market soon.

JV: And we have those now.

TT: But today, you still cannot on the market actually buy a licensed DVD player for Linux.

JV: I didn’t know that.

TT: So the question is, do you think people who go to Blockbuster, they rent a movie, they bring it home, and they play it on Linux by circumventing the access control, are those people committing a moral transgression?

JV: I do not believe that you have the right to override an encryption. Because if you have the right to do it, everybody can do it. For whatever benign reason you have, somebody else has got one even more benign. But once you let one person deal in a digital copy -- and I don’t have to tell you; you know far better than I that, unlike in analog, the ten thousandth copy is as pure as the original -- it is a big problem. So once you let the barriers down for your perfectly sensible reason, you gotta let it down for everybody.

I don’t want to get into the definition of morality. I never said anything was immoral in what I was saying. I said it is wrong to take something that belongs to somebody else.

TT: Indeed, but are you doing that when you rent a movie from Blockbuster and you watch it at home? ... I run Linux on my computer. There’s no product I can buy that’s licensed to watch [DVDs]. If I go to Blockbuster and rent a movie and watch it, am I a bad person? Is that bad?

JV: No, you’re not a bad person. But you don’t have any right.

TT: But I rented the movie. Why should it be illegal?

JV: Well then, you have to get a machine that’s licensed to show it.

TT: Here’s one of these machines; it’s just not licensed.

[Winstein shows Valenti his six-line “qrpff” DVD descrambler.]

TT: If you type that in, it’ll let you watch movies.

JV: You designed this?

TT: Yes.

JV: Un-fucking-believable.

TT: So the question is, if I just want to watch a movie--I rent it from Blockbuster--is that bad?

JV: No, that’s not bad.

TT: Then why should it be illegal?

Rich Taylor, MPAA public affairs: It’s not. ... You could put it in a DVD player, you could play it on any computer licensed for it.

JV: There’s lots of machines you can play it on.

TT: None under Linux. There’s no licensed player under Linux.

JV: But you’re trying to set your own standards.

TT: No, you said four years ago that people under Linux should use one of these licensed players that would be available soon. They’re still not available -- it’s been four years.

JV: Well why aren’t they available? I don’t know, because I don’t make Linux machines.

Let me put it in my simple terms. If you take something that doesn’t belong to you, that’s wrong. Number two, if you design your own machine, you can’t fuss at people, because you’re one of just a few. How many Linux users are there?

TT: About two million.

JV: Well, I can’t believe there’s not any -- there must be a reason for... Let me find out about that. You bring up an interesting question -- I don’t know the answer to that... Well, you’re telling me a lot of things I don’t know.

TT: Okay. Well, how can we have this dialogue?

JV: Well, we’re having it right now. I want to try to find out the point you make on why are there no Linux licensed players. There must be a reason -- there has to be a reason. I don’t know.

[Rich Taylor, a spokesman for the MPAA, later pointed to one company, Intervideo, that has a license to sell GNU/Linux DVD software, although the company does not actually sell a product that Linux users can purchase. Linux users who want to watch DVDs should “perhaps buy a DVD player instead,” Taylor said, or “write to Intervideo and others, encourage them that they’re the market,” he said. Will Linux users ever be able to view DVDs on their computers without breaking the law? “I’m sure that day is not far away,” Taylor said.

A spokesman for Intervideo, Andy Marken, said the company’s product is only for embedded systems and that Intervideo has no plans to release a software player for end users.]