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Pirates of the new millennium

December 25, 2003 18:44 IST

An Oslo court recently reconfirmed a verdict that is guaranteed to cast a pall over festivities in the digital entertainment industry.

The Norwegian court confirmed the acquittal of 20-year-old Jon "DVD" Johansen on piracy charges, freeing the Norwegian youth who has been the centre of a major controversy for five years.

DVD Jon has become an online cult figure as well as a hate-object for the entertainment industry. The movie/music industry uses a copy-protection method, named the CSS (where CSS is an acronym of "content-scrambling-system"). This is designed to prevent legally-bought DVDs from being copied.

In 1998, it also prevented DVDs from being played on free Linux-OS (operating system)-based systems, rather than proprietorial Mac or Windows PCs and conventional DVD players.

The reason was probably that it's tough to charge licence fees and royalties from Linux-users whereas Microsoft and Apple pay for bundling the CSS decoder with their operating systems.

As a 15-year-old, Johansen was one of a trio of kids who devised a method of unscrambling the CSS. The DeCSS algorithm (Decoder for CSS) they created was an elegant bit of code-breaking and Johansen wrote a utility that enabled Linux-users to copy and playback CSS-DVDs. DeCSS ended up all over the Net and was downloaded by millions.

Johansen was then hounded by the entertainment industry, which demanded his extradition to the US, preferably in handcuffs. The charges could have landed him in an American jail for a very long time.

The chargesheet made it seem that this teenager was single-handedly responsible for the estimated $ 3 billion worth of DVD piracy losses in 1998.

The reality is a little different. CSS prevents direct digital transfer. But it can't prevent a recording of DVD output -- even through means as crude as setting up a video camcorder in front of a screen.

Nor can it prevent an exact copy of the encrypted bitstream being written to a DVD for play on CSS-compatible platforms.

The Norwegians refused to allow a minor to be dragged through the US legal system and admitted charges of piracy in their own courts. The maximum penalty under the relevant laws would have been a two-year term.

In January 2003, DVD Jon was tried by an Oslo Court, which ruled that he had a right to copy his own legally-bought DVDs.

The court admitted that DeCSS could facilitate piracy; it also held that the charges of distribution against Johansen were unproven.

Johansen was cleared of piracy and distribution of the DeCSS. A consortium of Hollywood studios then approached a special division of the Norwegian police, which deals with white-collar crime and masterminded an appeal.

The special division "├śkokrim", appealed against the "application of the law and the presentation of evidence" during the original trial.

The appeals court has just upheld the original verdict, which means that Johansen is a free man although he would be pushing his luck if he applied for a US visa.

Last week, Johansen was again in the news when he posted source code to a program designed to help users unlock music downloaded using Apple's iTunes service. This is an interesting application, which again leads into grey areas.

The online iTunes shop is designed for use by US-based Mac users. It has attained a huge popular following because of a combination of a large library of songs and a cheap, easily customisable, per-song download format.

More than a million tracks per week tend to be pay-downloaded at $ 0.99 per high-fidelity tune. Johansen's new program enables PC users to convert the iTunes format to play tracks on more common multimedia platforms.

The Norwegian verdict is not binding on other courts obviously. But it does address key issues and is being seen as a landmark judgement.

The court held that the legal owner of a DVD has the right to copy it (but not for distribution) if only as a backup against damage. It also re-affirms the right of a DVD owner to play it on any system he sees fit.

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Devangshu Datta