DeCSS Down Under

A U.S. ban on the DVD-decrypting code is only egging on Australian hackers -- and an odd songwriter.

Published September 1, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Grant Bayley sees no reason to heed the recent U.S. District Court ruling that banned Eric Corley, aka Emmanuel Goldstein, publisher of hacker magazine 2600, from distributing a DVD-decrypting program. After all, Bayley lives in Australia, out of reach of the U.S. judge, which is why you might think that he would never stop linking to the forbidden DeCSS program from the Web site of 2600 Australia, a hacker collective that he organizes, and which, despite the name, is unaffiliated with Corley's venture.

But Bayley and his 550-member group figure their days of DeCSS freedom are numbered. Bayley says this has nothing to do with a letter from movie studios asking him to stop posting the code; nor does it stem from fear that Judge Lewis Kaplan's decision would hold any weight Down Under. Rather, Australia's own version of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act is expected to become law in the next six months, and Bayley says that 2600 Australia doesn't have the resources or support to fight back.

"DeCSS is coming down the day this law takes effect," he says, via e-mail. "The fact is, we're just not set up to handle a legal defense. We're not a company nor is there an organization like the Electronic Frontier Foundation [which is bankrolling Corley's defense] that's able to take a stand on this issue."

Plus it would be even harder to win the case in Australia than in the United States, he says. Why? Because "we have no right to free speech. Indeed, we have very little actual 'right' to do anything -- it's more of a gentleman's agreement that everybody collectively agrees to."

Some hackers will probably scorn Bayley for giving up so easily. And Pamela Samuelson, a copyright law expert and professor at University of California at Berkeley, is already calling his decision depressing. "Getting chilled by legislation that might pass is sad news," she says.

But Bayley's decision to remove DeCSS will probably end up looking less like an admission of defeat and more like a shift in strategy -- a shift away from head-to-head combat and toward guerilla tactics. For example, while DeCSS will come down, 2600 Australia may simply "alter the code so that it cannot perform an act of circumvention," Bayley says. This could be accomplished by pulling out a key line of the code and publishing it elsewhere. Or, Bayley may simply distribute DeCSS in a form that is not able to be immediately used by a computer. The idea: "Find ways to be smarter about how to get the information out there in one form or another without being in the firing line of the law in particular," he says.

And while Bayley searches for escape routes, other hackers have been busy finding new ways to thumb their noses at the courts. Now, along with T-shirts bearing the DeCSS code, fans can grab the algorithms from a song. The folky, acoustic tune, with its English-language version of the C computer code, isn't necessarily pleasant to hear, but it's meant to serve a higher purpose. And as long as it's not going away, fans of the software will have to simply do what they can.

Says Bayley: "There's better ways for us to fight the battle than head on with Goliath."

By Damien Cave

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

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