DMCA demonstration goes out with a whimper

A planned demonstration against a controversial copyright protection law fizzled Friday as open source luminary Bruce Perens stepped back from his plans to demonstrate DVD (digital video/versatile disk) player hacking software, which he said would be a violation of the controversial 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

Perens backed down from the stunt, plans for which were first reported by IDG, under pressure from Hewlett-Packard Co., where Perens is employed as a Linux developer and advocate. "Some of you came here to see me taken away in chains ... but that isn't going to happen," he said. "Obviously, I could still do it, but that would damage HP's Linux program, which would probably be a bad idea."

Martin Fink, who is Perens' boss at HP and heads up the company's Linux efforts, spoke before Perens' presentation to discuss why the company asked him to back down.

"I have a thing about my employees going to jail ... and I don't want Bruce to go to jail," Fink said. "Hopefully he'll thank me for that one day."

Although Perens said his presentation was in his own words and not those of his company, Fink took the opportunity to proclaim HP's formal position on the DMCA: "We do understand that there are aspects of the DMCA that are not favorable to the open source community," Fink said. However, he said he recognized that "the content producers have a right to get paid for their content."

Perens didn't let the corporate muzzle get in the way of denouncing the copyright protection legislation. He still called it a "hall monitor" and offered scores of reasons why the DMCA is a detriment to open source and free software development, as well as to the freedom of users.

But here at the O'Reilly Open Source Conference, which concludes Friday afternoon, participants didn't need any convincing of the DMCA downside. They already loathe the legislation, judging from comments in many of the presentations here. An opening keynote on Wednesday by Stanford University Law Professor Lawrence Lessig railed against the DMCA. Speakers who followed similarly griped of its effects in limiting the rights of software developers.

Attendees share that dislike for the software. One said the law is creating an iron fist over the software industry that is even bigger than the side effects of Microsoft Corp.'s monopoly in the desktop operating system market. In the case of the DMCA, however, it is the movie studios that are using their dominance to limit the rights of computer users and developers.

"We used to be afraid of Microsoft; now we should be afraid of Sony," said Robert Page, chief executive officer at Zope Corp., a maker of open source content management software.

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