net.wars: A marking pen, some electrical tape, and a taste for Celine Dion

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 17 May 2002

There must be people who like Celine Dion - in fact, my downstairs neighbours are two of them, and a sound like a cat yowling "My Heart Must Go On" on a backyard fence regularly emanates from their apartment - but you wouldn't expect her to be majorly controversial on the Net.

Wendy M Grossman

And she's really not: she's just disliked. But her latest CD is contnroversial: it was the first copy-protected CD launched.

This is this madness about selling audio CDs that can't be played in computers' CD-ROM drives. What the record companies get out of it is that people can't rip the tracks of the CDs, turn them into MP3s, and disseminate them promiscuously across the Net. What consumers get out of it is that they can't listen to music on their computers. No one does that, right? We all opt for the better sound available from our sound systems, right? Screw convenience, right?

There's a side issue, in that according to a story that originated on Slashdot and got picked up by Mac User Dion's CD, along with a number of other copy-protected titles from Sony, damages new iMacs to the point where they have to be sent off for repair. Oddly enough, and I think little-known to most people, is that Key2Audio does have a utility available to let you play the copy protected CDs on your PC; however, this is locked to one specific PC. Mac users are, I guess, still out of luck.

Anyway, this week it transpired that a couple of guys in Germany - safely out of reach of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act - have discovered that you could defeat the copy protection by drawing on the edge of the CD or covering it up with electrical tape or Post-It notes. The marker shown in their description is black - a disappointment, perhaps, to the hi-fi loonies who claimed that marking up a CD with green ink made it sound better.

Apparently the copy protection is a corrupted file stored on the outside of the disc, and covering it up makes the other files perfectly readable. I can't guarantee this: I haven't tried it personally. Partly, I don't want to support copy protection by buying one of the affected CDs, and, partly, like everyone else, I don't want to be arrested next time I go to the US for having openly used means to circumvent copy protection - a crime, under the DMCA. Although I do hope some enterprising individual will print up some T-shirts with pictures of the hack for the brave to wear through Customs!

The Electronic Frontier Foundation's IP attorney, Fred von Lohmann, recently published a paper reviewing the impact of the DMCA. In it, he talks about the chilling of free speech as individuals have become reluctant to publish the results of their research, if it might mean their arrest on arrival in the US. That is, after all, what happened to Dmitri Sklyarov, the Russian author of a program designed to convert Adobe eBooks into PDF files. That fear was also the reason that Jon Johanssen - one of several authors of DeCSS, the software that unlocks certain aspects of DVDs - declined to travel to the US to collect the Pioneer award the EFF gave him.

The problem of where you draw the line between legitimate corporate secrets and free speech has been with us since the early days of the Net. It was the central issue in a series of arrests across the US in 1990 known as "Operation Sun Devil", which inspired science fiction writer Bruce Sterling to write his 1992 book The Hacker Crackdown. Then, corporations were spooked by teens who were able to make their computers jump through hoops. Now, corporations are spooked by teens who can make their intellectual property copyable across the world.

We're at a much earlier stage with the intellectual property crackdown, but because of the size of the entertainment industry, we already have much more dangerous laws. And expensive: Elcomsoft, Sklyarov's employer, told CNet recently that the DMCA charges have cost it hundreds of thousands of dollars. The question is: if an industry adopts copy protection, how stupid does the system have to be, before the DMCA stops applying? The audio CD defeat, which applies to encoding software known as Cactus Data Shield and Key2Audio, ought to be such a case. Green ink certainly should be. Is it?

What seems clear is that the people devising and applying the copy protection were so focused on the need to defeat the possibility of technical hacks - cracking the encryption, writing software that would make it possible to rip the CDs - that they completely lost sight of the fact that a CD is a physical object.

Ah, well, doubtless this will be reflected in DMCA 2.0, in which Post-It notes, electrical tape, and marking pens will become contraband. Better start your stockpiles now.

Note to the reader who last week emailed to say that my writing gave you narcolepsy: hope you're enjoying your nap.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).