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Great Seal of the United States (obverse)

Recording Industry and DMCA: biting the hand that feeds them. Media companies (like the recording industry) have been passing waves of bad legislation in order to "protect" us. Even the government got in the act (or started it), by passing laws granting them a monopoly on invading our privacy. The problem is that the issues is that they are very complex, and hard to legislate. The laws passed often imply contradictory or outright silly things. I can tape video of you undressing, but audio is against the law. Cordless phones can be freely monitored -- by government, but not by other people. Cordless cell-phones are not the same as cordless phones. And the worst laws have to do with private data and usage: the DMCA.


Encryption is the ability to scramble data so others can't understand it - and is against the law. Yet, almost everything in computers is scrambled in some way. Computers decrypt numbers into characters which we can read, and vise versa. Every format for computers is a different way to scramble that information and encode (or encrypt) it. Compressing files so they are smaller (done all the time in computers) is also a form of encryption.

The difference between the legal, and illegal variants is how easy it is for our government to be able to invade private information. If the data can be "cracked" easily, then you're OK -- but if it is private, then you could be a criminal.

One guy made a program for people to protect their files called PGP (Pretty Good Privacy). It wasn't that secure, but it was secure enough that it cost a lot to crack - so our Government stepped in and made it illegal for export, even though every other country in the world has access to better forms of encryption. In protest, T-Shirts were made that had the PGP algorithm on them, with the caption, "If you read this, you are guilty of arms trafficking". Imagine throwing people in prison for treason because they wore or read a T-Shirt.

Another bad law is called the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) which outlaws tampering or viewing any protection system. This was so that movie or record companies could call any format they encode in "a protection system", and anyone that changes the format is guilty of a federal crime (maximum penalty of $1 Million and 10 years in prison). This is a return of the "Use a betamax, go to prison" law. Imagine how you will feel if the feds come to your door, because your kid was taping a song off of a radio station (or internet radio)?

Ironicaly the DMCA is being used against its creators. Napster was sued because they made a program which allowed people distribute information too easily, and some of the information was copyrighted music. Anachronistic judges said that Napster was responsible and must try to police the entire Internet and block all copyrighted materials -- like the titles of songs or where people can find those songs. So another group (called Aimster) creates the "pig encoder".

The pig encoder is "a protection system" which renames a file into pig-Latin. If you want to find a group by the name of the "Rolling Stones", you just look for "Olling-ray Tones-say", or actually you don't need the '-ay' so the name is "ollingr toness". Since this "pig encoder" is a protection system under the DMCA, if the record companies try to force people to crack this highly complex system, then they are guilty of a federal crime and subject to fine and imprisonment

The truly scary part is that just by typing, publishing, or reading about this encoder (how the Pig Encoder works) -- you are guilty of violating the DMCA as well, and subject to $500,000 fine or 5 years in prison. Even just mentally decoding the group "eatlesb", into the "Beatles" is a federal crime. I better stop writing about this now.

🗒️ NOTE:
Now what happened is while the law was poorly written, and they have the potential to arrest you for crazy shit (we're all guilty of crimes against the state), the truth is that it was more practically enforced. Which means that it is used to bully people too force plea deals -- but it's not widely used to go after individuals. But it could be. And that's still a problem for civil libertarians: don't allow bad laws on the books, even if they aren't abused much, because they could be.

The other thing that happened was that it did nothing to stop widespread Music Piracy and the music industry still lost their business. So the histrionics, buying off politicians, turning us into felons for taping or sharing music, only wasted money and pissed off the customers. And in the end? The solution was what it always should have been: access. There was a value to music distribution -- and in the short term, the record labels could drive up that value through artificial scarcity. But in the long term, the market and technology enabled people to go around the record labels and get what they wanted. If the labels realized that their job wasn't to pick winners and losers, and create scarcity, but to fill a distribution need -- they wouldn't have seen their industry crash as it did.

Read what Frank Zappa said on the topic:

Frank Zappa

Zappa was hit or miss with me. He had/did some things I loved, and others I didn't. But he was insightful, even when I didn't agree. And when I did, he was f'in brilliant. There are rabble rousers who just want to break shit and tear it all down. And there's less common nihilists that are actually selectively targeting their rage at things they don't like -- and trying to remake it. Zappa might have been a bit indiscriminate, but some of the cultural norms he wanted to tear down, needed to be torn a little.... and he wasn't a pure post-modernist trying to destroy all social conventions, or that was afraid to mock himself or others trying to tear down establishments either. He was a weird duck. But one that did make the world more interesting. more...


📚 References

Written 2002.03.12