Those rarefied few of you who might read these all-to-sporadic missives of mine (even if only on the way to see if I'm really bashing the Catholic Church in my other blog), which if I'm lucky, might include my wife, and maybe a co-worker or two who are polite enough to humor me, were witness to an intentionally vague posting of mine a couple weeks ago in which I mentioned the onerous Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Setting aside the trite and faddish nature of the name of this notorious piece of legislation, caused by an affliction that affected nearly everyone in marketing, politics, or any other public communication capacity around the year 1999 of utilizing, in nearly every kind of nomenclature, a reference to the fact that it would soon be a large, round number of years since the date that Dionysus Exiguus (know as "Dennis the Short"), a sixth-century Scythian monk, mistakenly identified as the year of the Birth of Christ, a fad that had nearly died out by time the new millennium actually began, thanks to the fact that Dennis, like everyone else outside of India at the time, and perhaps not even there, would have reacted with incredulity at the mere mention of such an absurd notion of a Year Zero, on 1 January 2001, by which time the novelty of the whole thing had faded and the country, beleaguered by a long, tedious and ultimately absurd election drama, became distracted by the ripe opportunity of a new chief executive to hate, this legislative monstrosity represents a perfect example of the absurd extremes to which Congress, beholden and responsive to only the most monied of its members' supporters, could stray, unreigned by common sense, simple consideration of the logical consequences, or just about anything else but the bidding of its corporate masters, or in an occasional fit of quadrennial panic, the perception, but not the well-being, of the public.
Consider gun control laws. It is already illegal in every jurisdiction to murder someone, with or without a firearm, but thanks to ineffective law enforcement, the breakdown of any sense in the public of civility, or civil responsibility, the short-sightedness of an increasingly intellectually benumbed population and the general moral decay that been the primary precipitate of post-Enlightenment Modernism, murders had increased to an epidemic proportion. Having completely failed in efforts to prevent or deter these awful crimes, the legislators, in their infinite pragmatism, and not insignificant otiosity concluded that since the laws were being broken with impunity, domestic order would most certainly be restored with the simple application of additional bureaucracy. So gun control laws were passed, and an activity which is inherently harmless, the owning of a firearm, was made illegal, in the apparent hopes that the failure of a potentially capital punishment to deter murderous behaviour would be rectified by the additional paperwork and the threat of much less serious punishment. Of course, to be fair, gun control laws did have a significant impact of reducing the potential for gun violence in all but the people who would actually commit such crimes in the first place. In other words, only people who want to obey the law, will.
Emboldened by the easy, but false logic of these feckless accomplishments, and completely undeterred by the truth of the almost complete failure of these laws to accomplish their goals, the U.S. Congress set about to address the complete lack of enforcement against digital piracy of music, books, and increasingly, movies. Media companies, having realized that their monopoly of 19th century distribution methods for their products was rendered completely null and void by the radical transformation wrought by the advent of the Internet, turned to various encryption technologies in order to prevent the violation of their copyrights, not to mention in order to maintain an artificially and grotesquely inflated price on the distribution of content, which has now become essentially free compared to the days when physical media was required to move around sounds and images. Under the auspices of the name "Digital Rights Management", companies have shackled their products with technological means to prevent digital redistribution by customers. Of course, the irony is that no matter how securely, no matter how byzantine and baroque the means used to protect your rights, if the end product is viewable by human eyes or hearable by human ears, then it can be copied. The end result of these increasingly misguided undertakings was to penalize paying customers, who were often saddled with products that did not work as they should because they were designed, under every conceivable circumstance except one, not to work at all.
On a personal note, my first DVD device was the DVD drive that came with the IBM Thinkpad laptop I purchased in 2000. Realizing that I now had the ability to play DVD's I went out and picked up DVD copy of "The Matrix", a movie that had been recently released on DVD. I found however, that the movie would not play on my computer, and that I had in fact paid some 24 dollars for a round piece of aluminized plastic that could serve me no purpose other than as, perhaps, a coaster. I later found out that that particular DVD had known problems with particular players, including those used in IBM laptops, and of course, this is due, in part to the inclusion of encryption technology in the DVD-specification. It wasn't until I purchased another DVD player (actually it was my wife who surprised me with it for Christmas) that I was able to actually use a product that I had months before bought and paid for fully. This is, of course, only one example of the numerous ways in which I was deprived of the rights and value which were most assuredly legally and morally mine to be had because of Digital Rights Management.
The ironic thing is that DRM has always been quickly and relatively easily "cracked" by those people with the means to do so. As the certain circles of the general public gained more and more skill in circumventing these methods of protection, the media companies engaged in more and more destructive behavior, rendering their products less useful and less valuable, infringing on the Fair Use rights of paying customers while having little or no effect on piracy, particularly the well-organized and highly lucrative piracy operations based largely in the Far East. Having failed completely in the totally contradictory goal of creating a product that can be distributed, but cannot be distributed, they turned their efforts to the resource always available to those corporations of significant financial wherewithal, the purchase of appropriate legislation from those most costly courtesans of the legal system, the U.S. Congress. Since the means to copy a protected CD, DVD, or software amounts to what is essentially a trade secret, which cannot by definition be protected by copyright or patent law, since you cannot copyright a process, and a patent requires those details of the process to be made public, the media conglomerates tried the gun control method. It is a common and well-known tactic that if a business cannot compete fairly, legislation can always be procured to protect what the market would take away. By carefully crafting legislation that would, in effect, enforce by law what they could not enforce by well-intentioned but woefully flawed technological schemes, and counting on the Congressional sponsors, too distracted by their burgeoning re-election warchests, to actually read and consider the ramifications of what they were about to pass, the media companies simply made it illegal to attempt to circumvent copy-protection. Now just like owning a gun. circumventing copy protection is a completely harmless activity. It isn't until you commit a crime: murder, in the case of a gun, or distributing a copyrighted movie or music to someone who is not legally entitled to receive it, does the activity lead to harm.
As always, in the rush to address a legitimate problem with an illegitimate solution, unintended consequences are often the main, if not the only, result. In this case, our esteemed representatives have carved away a huge piece of the rights of consumers under copyright law, that of Fair Use. It is no longer legal for someone to attempt to backup copy-protected media, despite the fact that there are many legally and morally justifiable reasons for doing so. Physical media are not impervious to damage, new technologies are constantly being developed which require the perfectly legal copying and conversion of a digital product in order to use it, and mere matters of convenience make it necessary for the rights already established by over two hundred years of copyright law precedence to be protected, and not whittled away by companies too lazy or stupid to effectively react to changes in the market for their products.
It is as if horse-and-buggy manufacturers in the early 20th century bribed lawmakers to require everyone purchasing a one of the new horseless carriages to still maintain a stable, and periodically purchase riding crops. In fact, one is reminded and actual instance of this behavior: that of the dairy corporations in the early 20th century which, in a move that would feel right at home in a list of the business practices of Microsoft, convinced lawmakers to require margarine manufacturers to dye their product pink because, in the economic climate surrounding two World Wars and a Depression and given margarine's superior price-to-quality ratio with butter, there was no way they could compete without an unfair advantage.
Now we come to 2007, and the media companies having foisted upon us yet another format war for the next generation of content distribution have once again placed all their eggs in the basket of DRM, which having failed in its every single application in the past 30-some years to prevent illicit distribution, was quickly defeated once again, surprising no one, but, it would seem, the people who created it. It turns that there is an encryption key needed to decode the contents of an HD-DVD, and having figured out this key, people began to publish this information on-line. In fact, the HD-DVD specification allows for this key to changed as needed, so while the key that was made public could be used to decrypt HD-DVD that had already been released, new releases would utilize a different key. Of course, the new key is already public before the HD-DVDs that will use it have been released, but I'm sure all the time and energy being invested into this hopeless attempt to stuff the genie back into the bottle makes someone feel good.
Now, to be honest, there are lots of people who will use this information to commit piracy, but the information itself is as harmless as a gun locked up in a firebox in the back of your closet. There is no harm, only the potential for harm if additional, illegal and immoral positive actions are committed. What we have in effect is Congress once again making a perfectly harmless and legitimate activity illegal, in the hopes of preventing some truly illegal activity (illegal in that actual harm occurs) from occurring. Of course, it has never worked in the past, and will never work in the future. The only effect of this kind of legislation is that it is now possible, in a country that prides itself as a bastion of free speech and free association to be harassed and possibly subject to criminal or civil punitive measures for publishing a list of numbers, for instance these:
09 F9 11 02 9D 74 E3 5B D8 41 56 C5 63 56 88 C0
Since of course consistency is as much practiced by our lawmakers as is common sense, logic and reason in general (i.e., almost not at all), legislators seem perfectly content to engage in such ludicrous activity despite the gaping inconsistencies this introduces. But if we were for a moment to consider what it really being legislated here, and extend it to all other analogous situations using the same reasoning, it should therefore be made illegal to publish books about lock-picking, surveillance, shady accounting practices, how to purchase, or even how to make firearms... perhaps even how best to get elected to Congress. After all, if owning a gun is now considered tantamount to committing a violent crime with it, shouldn't knowing how to acquire one, legally or illegally be also? Shouldn't it in fact be illegal in those jurisdictions that practice gun control to even communicate how the forge your own firearm, or mix gunpowder? Once again, we are faced with a rule, which in its face might, without any consideration, appear to be of no negative consequence and even beneficial to society, which is in fact, if one follows its specious reasoning to its perfectly reasonable conclusion, to be of such outrageous absurdity that it should summarily be thrown out of consideration.
That conclusion is this: The logic behind gun control and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act is that if we prevent people from acquiring the means to commit crime, then we can more easily and effectively prevent them from committing that crime. To follow this logic no large distance to its ultimate conclusion means that Congress, if it is going to attempt to instill any amount of consistency in the body of Law whatsoever, must immediately and unconditionally require that all citizens surrender the whole of their intellect and will to the benevolent custody of Mother State, for it is only mindless animals who are completely incapable of committing crimes.