Analysis: Linux maven Bruce Perens: DMCA outlaw?

In a San Francisco hotel conference room buzzing with lingo-slinging technology executives and public relations representatives, Bruce Perens is an unassuming standout. The advocate and developer of free software isn't wearing a gray suit like the rest of them, and he's not overly optimistic about the announcement being made here -- that media software maker RealNetworks Inc. is making some of its vital source code freely available to developers.

That's because Perens sees through the business of the software industry. He is more engaged in its social aspects. In addition to making many technical contributions to open source and free software projects such as the Linux operating system, Perens also is the primary author of "The Open Source Definition," a syllabus of sorts that outlines the philosophy of the development model, which says software code should be free to view and modify.

Among the throngs of software executives at that San Francisco event on Monday, Perens explained in an interview that he is planning to embark on another cause -- an assault on the controversial digital copyright legislation known as the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA.

Perens said he plans to break the DMCA during a presentation on digital rights management (DRM) Friday afternoon at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention in San Diego. He is scheduled to demonstrate a souped-up DVD player that can circumvent certain DRM technologies created to control the availability of DVD movies by region.

The issue is one that hits close to home for Perens. On a recent trip to London, the Linux developer and Hewlett-Packard Co. employee said he purchased two movies on DVD : "Gladiator," the heroic story of a muscle-bound gladiator bringing honor back to the Roman empire, and "Artificial Intelligence: AI," Steven Spielberg's futuristic take on the progress of artificial intelligence. When he returned to the U.S. to watch his new titles, the movies wouldn't play in his DVD player, he said. That's because Hollywood has devised a system that classifies DVDs by geographical "zones" and prohibits movies from being played outside the zone they are manufactured for.

"When Hollywood releases a DVD in London, that DVD will not play in a U.S. DVD player," Perens explained.

That is, unless you know how to hack your DVD player, which is exactly what Perens plans to demonstrate during his presentation. Perens purchased on eBay a player that had been modified, using a software application available on the Internet, to play DVDs from various regional zones.

"I'm going to explain how the player was modified," he said.

Technically, under the DMCA, Perens' explanation of the technology makes him liable for a fine of US$500,000, he said. And although his presentation might seem like a frivolous crime, tempting the DMCA has been a risky endeavor by those who have tried similar protests before him.

The Russian programmer Dmitry Sklyarov was charged with violating the legislation with a program he developed that allowed users to crack Adobe Systems Inc.'s eBook format. During a presentation at the Def Con hacker show in Las Vegas last July in which he detailed his work, Sklyarov was arrested by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for detailing the technology, which violated terms of the DMCA that prohibit the distribution of tools that facilitate illegal copying.

Edward Felten, a Princeton University professor, set off another legal spark when he publicized a research paper that he claimed was the recipe for breaking the digital watermark technology Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI). Felten had planned to present the paper at a conference, but never did, after coming under legal pressure from the entertainment industry, which threatened to sue him and the show organizers.

Perens admits, "what happened to Dmitry could conceivably happen to me as well." However, he said he is willing to take the risk.

"It is a political and social statement, and the statement is that the people do not need to have a hall monitor living in their stereo system and should be able to play any kind of media on the device they wish," he said.

Robin Gross, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a San Francisco-based non-profit organization that advocates free speech and free expression in the IT industry, warned that Perens could get himself into legal hot water by presenting details on how to hack the DRM technology.

"Because a technical presentation is just that -- distributing technical information about how to get around certain aspects of (digital rights management technology), it does trigger liability," she said. Gross also noted that, similar to the case with Felten, because the presentation will occur at a conference that is charging attendees, both Perens and the show organizers could be subject to criminal charges in addition to a fine.

Many critics of the DMCA, including the EFF, argue that while content owners such as movies studios should be able to defend their copyrights with technology, the legislation that was designed to protect those content owners is full of loopholes.

"In an attempt to protect the content owner's rights, the DMCA infringes upon the free speech rights of the rest of us because now we've got a copyright law that says we're not allowed to talk about the weaknesses of (DRM) technology," Gross said.

Perens said he is making a habit out of testing the limits of the DMCA, mainly to show just how trivial most DRM technologies are. Last year at the O'Reilly conference, he delivered a presentation during which he showed attendees the slides that got Sklyarov arrested.

"This is becoming a tradition. I go there and break the law every year in the name of free speech."

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