Internet 1, Big Copyright 0

Some 11 and a half years ago, I was mad enough about a story in the news that I stayed up until 3:57 a.m. (according to the timestamp on the file) to write a column about it. That issue was a case called Universal v. Reimerdes, in which a federal judge had ruled it illegal to distribute the DeCSS DVD-unlocking software.

I knew that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s “anti-circumvention” provisions made such a ruling possible. But it was something else to see it applied to a program with obvious fair-use potential–and to have people then act as if it were entirely feasible to halt the distribution of that file over the Internet. I just had to write about something so insultingly unfair and mind-boggingly stupid… assuming I could get the importance of it across to people who had never heard of DeCSS or the DMCA:

Last Thursday, a judge in New York City ruled that an obscure magazine called 2600, based in Middle Island, N.Y., can’t post an equally obscure program, DeCSS, on its Web site, or link to other sites that offer it. Few people have used this software, which unlocks a DVD movie’s encryption, and not many more seem to care.

They should. This lawsuit is all about the mix of fear and greed that is driving the entertainment industry to put tighter and tighter locks on its products–and whether consumers get to do anything about it.

That August 25, 2000 column in the Washington Post was the first of many copyright rants I’ve had occasion to write. A lot has changed since then–DeCSS, of course, never disappeared and has since been replaced by better software that I’ve used to make copies of my DVDs to watch on laptops without optical drives–but one thing had not. The entertainment-industry firms that had lobbied for the passage of the DMCA and cheered the DeCSS verdict had kept on getting their way in Washington. Never mind the larger size of the tech industry; at worst, Big Copyright might lose a round after an egregious overreach, but that setback would then go largely unrecorded.

That changed this week, thanks to a storm of protest over the Stop Online Piracy Act and its Senate counterpart, the Protect IP Act. Both would have turned the Internet’s Domain Name System into a censorship mechanism; the former would have also given copyright owners a financial kill switch for sites accepting user-generated content. And both looked set to sail through Congress until people noticed and started getting righteously fed-up, culminating in yesterday’s blackout protests at sites from Wikipedia to WordPress.com.

Those two bills have since taken a public beating–not just on tech-news sites, but on the evening news–and sponsors of each have been rushing to hit the Undo button on their support.  To judge from the more delusional press releases issued over the last 48 hours, I’m not sure that Hollywood even knows what hit it.

I would have liked to have seen this moment happen back in 2000, but this year will do.