April 14, 2000

Outlaw Programming

Bill Gates It's tiny. It's fast. It's easy to find, download, install, and operate. It's free. And unlike most software these days, it does everything its maker claims. For the moment, it holds the heavyweight title of the world, The Hottest Illegal Program on the Planet, for threatening to bring Hollywood to its knees. It's DeCSS.

If you haven't heard the by now old news, DeCSS is a ripper program, a DVD ripper. If you have a DVD drive in your computer, all you have to do is pop in a DVD, start DeCSS, and it automatically offers to copy any or all of the files on the DVD to your hard disk, in the process removing the copy protection that would otherwise prevent you from playing these files with any MPEG2-capable player. There's no shortage of MPEG2-capable players.

Of course, once you have decrypted movie files on you hard disk, you're capable of doing just about anything you and your software and hardware please with them: cut, excerpt and re-edit them; delete the annoying previews of coming attractions and language and subtitle files you don't need; add bogus scenes and title credits of your own or from another film; dub in your own abusive soundtrack (a la Woody Allen's first and perhaps most creatively funny film, "What's Up Tiger Lilly"), recompress the movie with other codecs, including more efficient ones like MPEG4 (video) and MP3 or, better yet, MSAudio (sound), and you can top it all off by recording the results to another disk.

At present, DVD writers are scarce and expensive. Panasonic's is the only well-publicized product on the market, and it's priced at around $5000. Blank DVD disks are also pricey, more expensive than buying a pre-recorded DVD off the rack. So it's not likely that an underground bootleg network is going to spring up, doing to DVD sales what MP3 is starting to do to audio CD sales...at least not this week. But Hollywood is looking ahead. Who can't remember when CD burners were priced at $5000, even $10,000, and blank CDs cost more than pressed ones? No prices have ever fallen further faster.

What you can already do, and many are starting to do, is "backup," as the euphemism goes, your store-bought DVD to VideoCD format, which uses the older MPEG1 "whitebook" standard and lower VHS-quality resolution to record video to cheap, inexpensive CDs readable by computer CD-ROM drives and most current DVD players. Documented in English or not, the capacity to read VideoCDs comes built into most DVD players because VideoCDs are an established alternative to VCRs throughout Asia. A VideoCD, or VCD for short, holds about 60 minutes of MPEG1-encoded material, so the average Hollywood-formula film will fit on two CDs.

Or, if you're willing to abandon your antiquated boobtube entirely, and for entertainment plug yourself into the global corporate-media propaganda matrix on your 17, 19, 20, 21 inch computer monitor, you can use the hybrid "miniDVD" format, a creative patchwork of Microsoft's MPEG4 and MSAudio. Redmond's codecs are intended for streaming video, but you can crank up the quality and get excellent results off a CD. In fact, Microsoft compression is so good, that most Hollywood-formula films will fit on one miniDVD-encoded standard CD disk. Not what Gates & company intended, but there it is. And there's more. If you still hunger for all the original DVD menus, options, languages, subtitles, director's tracks, etc., some creative folks out there in netspace have developed a simple, text-based information file format and reader to make all the extras work with miniDVDs.

No wonder Hollywood is up in arms, and suddenly calling for what can't help sounding like a global police state.

Take note: The issue is NOT piracy. Piracy, the theft and wholesale remarketing of trademarked and copyrighted property, is well established, the basis of a large part of the high-tech economy of countries such as Thailand, Indonesia, Hong Kong/China, and other places here and there around the "third world." Pirated digital and audio CDs, and endless knockoffs of every other kind of brand-name consumer good have been black-marketed in America and elsewhere for decades. There have been pirate DVD's from the start. The current uproar is fundamentally not about this kind of piracy, because what now threatens Hollywood profits also and equally threatens the large-scale, established pirate businesses throughout the world: the prospect of a global grassroots network of theft and distribution, with no centers of production or points of sale to target, where materials pass friend to friend, acquaintance to acquaintance, on and off the Internet, no money, no records changing hands. Consider that laptops are starting to appear with built-in CD burners: you can bootleg a CD over coffee with a stranger. With this kind of decentered, grassroots theft, the "enemy" rapidly disappears into and becomes synonymous with "the people"--thus the police-state overtones of the cries of anguish emanating from Hollywood these days.

Of course, all variety of technical schemes--encodings, encryptions, keys, hardware and software tracking ids, digital licenses--are already available to stop or, more truthfully, slow the emergence of this kind of grassroots network of theft and distribution. More will be developed. All will be tried. And you can argue until you're blue in the face about how effective any will be and how dire the consequences if they don't work. It's hard to find anyone who can't get quite worked up about the complications and implications. But behind the excitement, anger and anxiety, and driving the frenzy of discussion of this issue is a little fact no one wants to face, that the only real, debatable issue is "how long?" For any given scheme, how long before another little program like DeCSS gets out of the bag and can't be put back? Because there will always be another DeCSS, and it will always be easier and cheaper to crack a protection or tracking scheme than to develop and implement one. There's a general law operating here. Let's call it the First Law of Digital Information:

First Law: Outlaw programming cannot be stopped.

Technical issues aside, there's a another general law at work here that ought to receive serious consideration, because it overturns the basis upon which many have bet hopes and dreams and billions on the outcome of the "technology revolution." It ought to be considered seriously, because the inevitable frustration of these hopes and dreams and billions is likely to lead, like the present cries from Hollywood, to pressure for poorly thought out, undesirable political/police solutions to what technology simply can't in the long-run fix. That general law is a corollary of basic economic laws of supply and demand as they specifically apply to this Age of Information, where information of all sorts becomes ever easier to produce, distribute and consume. Let's call it the Second Law of Digital Information:

Second Law: In any Age of Information, the market value of information rapidly approaches zero.

Evermore, everyone will be writing yesterday's headlines. They may be good and profitable for a day, but after that you may as well kiss them goodbye and move on to the next. No royalties or residuals for creators. But, more devastating for corporate media, no "killer copyrights" that can be rolled on and on for years and decades off a single, original contract appropriating the work of content creators. Of course, the present media empires, Hollywood included, will not disappear, but it will be interesting to see how their game changes, for change it must.

It will also be interesting to see whether, as a consequence of the First and Second Laws of Digital Information, the much heralded "Age of Information" doesn't turn out to be the shortest age on record; whether, as a consequence of our technology revolution, we don't find ourselves instead embarked upon an "Age of Performance," where only acts directly performed and reproducible by human beings, and only by human beings, retain any value.

In such an Age of Performance, for example, you may have to give up your rock star dreams of landing that multi-million dollar contract and, essentially, retiring to studio production and release tours every other year. But there may yet be a good living as a working and touring musician, pressing CDs as bootleggable advertisements for yourself and playing whatever you damn well please. The Grateful Dead did the equivalent for decades--no poor boys there. In such an Age of Performance, the need (if not the pay) for actors, directors, cinematographers will be as great if not greater than ever, but if you make it to Hollywood, just make sure that, like any of today's digital porn stars, you get paid in full for your actual, on-the-job performance, upfront! Who knows, we may soon be able to look forward to an actual, rather than mythical revival of live theater....

Posted by Raoul

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