DeCSS decoy

A free-software fanatic unleashes a "useless" program to foil investigators looking for the DeCSS DVD decryption code.

Published February 22, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Smokescreens never fail in James Bond movies. But can a
decoy "DeCSS" software program, which strips cascading style
sheets (CSS) from HTML documents, foil prosecutors searching
for the real DeCSS, an outlawed program that decrypts DVDs?

San Francisco Web developer and self-described "free-software
fanatic" Evan Prodromou thinks so. That's why he wrote the
"pretty much useless" application, posted it on the 'zine Pigdog Journal, where he's a staff writer, and encouraged open-source fans
to post it to their sites.

"The attempt here with the decoy is to put up thousands and
thousands of mirror sites, to the point where the investigators
throw up their hands in disgust," says Prodromou, who posted
the software under his nom de plume, Mr. Bad.

The real DeCSS code unlocks the copyright protection
mechanism on a DVD -- and is the only way to play a DVD on
a computer running Linux-based operating systems. (There is no
commercial software for playing DVDs on Linux.) DeCSS came
under attack by the film industry and makers of DVD players;
they both filed suits against sites that distributed the code, with
arguments that it is a tool for piracy. In a January ruling, a New
York judge ordered three sites, including the hacker quarterly 2600, to stop
distributing the software, writing that "there is little room for
doubting that broad dissemination of DeCSS would seriously
injure or destroy [the studios'] ability to distribute their
copyrighted products on DVDs."

To avoid being named as defendants in the suits, many sites that
were distributing the code joined those named in the suit and
took it down.

With the decoy DeCSS, Prodromou figures he has hit on an
effective way to protest, without sticking his neck out too far.
The idea of distributing DeCSS appealed to him; a lot of hackers
have asserted that if thousands of people were distributing the
code, the studios and DVD makers wouldn't go after all of them.
But Prodromou wasn't sure he wanted to break the law. "I'm a
total chicken, and don't want to go to court," he wrote on the
Pigdog site.

"It's a practically risk-free way to stand up and say, 'I am
Spartacus,'" says Prodromou, recalling the leader of an ancient
slave revolt against Rome. "I'm not going to put up with
investigators scouring around people's Web sites. It's a way to
fight back without getting in trouble."

Some members of the open-source community apparently agree.
On Friday morning the Pigdog site was linked to from Slashdot,
a favorite hangout of open-source developers, and Prodromou
says, "Servers are going wild with the load."

Still, not everyone thinks the prank is such a great idea. In fact,
the cascading style sheet stripper called DeCSS will probably
divert attention from more serious arguments about the original
DeCSS -- such as whether or not software code can be protected
by the same laws that guarantee free speech, says Scott
Ananian, a graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of
Technology Laboratory for Computer Science.

"It seems like there are two strategies: One is to fight the issue
in court, the other is 'We'll all break the law, then you can't
catch us,'" says Ananian, who is also protesting the suits. "But the latter seems to be the
wrong approach, because they can pick and choose who they
grab. The only way to win is to win in court." The Motion
Picture Association of America, which has been a vocal organ
for the studios, and the DVD Copy Control Association declined
to comment about the decoy DeCSS.

In any case, hackers face an uphill battle. The federal judge
who ordered that the original DeCSS be pulled off the Net, also
disparaged the hacker community for making a
concerted effort to disseminate the DeCSS code. If the judge's
opinion isn't swayed and the movie studios win, then
downloading the decoy DeCSS might be a valid form of protest,
says Ananian. In fact, why not go further: "Name all your files
DeCSS," he says.

Of course, some hackers aren't waiting. Before Slashdot
linked to Pigdog on Friday, more than 2,000 people had
downloaded the decoy DeCSS and about 30 sites had told
Prodromou that they had linked to the program.

"We're not saying we don't respect the law," says Chris DiBona,
president of the Silicon Valley Linux Users Group and the
Linux community evangelist at VA Linux. His site contains a link
to the decoy DeCSS, and even a sarcastic, Bond-like tease:
"Looking for the hottest code on the Net? Here it is."

"This is really about confusing the lawyers," DiBona says.
"These guys are basically surfing the Web looking for people to
sue, and this will confuse them because they're really not that
smart. It's a good way to waste their time."

Mr. Bad agrees: "I figure if we waste just five minutes of some
DVD-CCA Web flunky's time looking for DeCSS, we've done
some small service for The Cause."

By Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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