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Last Updated: Friday, 25 April, 2003, 13:19 GMT 14:19 UK
In defence of copyright protection
Computer disc, Eyewire
Before now Linux users have worked around copying controls
Technology analyst Bill Thompson thinks copyright protection is something worth having.

Linus Torvalds, the programmer who created the Linux kernel, shocked large sections of the programming community on Wednesday when he posted a message to a technical mailing list saying that "DRM is perfectly ok with Linux".

He was talking about whether the principles of free software development would be breached if people were able to use some of the emerging technologies for digital rights management with Linux-based systems.

Linus is clear that they will not. Although his position will infuriate many of the hardcore programmers working with Linux, it seems eminently sensible.

Whatever people might say on the mailing lists, weblogs and e-zines, being able to digitally sign a file and encode information about how that file can legally be used would seem to be not only uncontroversial but absolutely vital.

Protected works

After all, every book I read comes with a copyright page telling me what rights I have, who owns the copyright and all sorts of other information.

If I take the newly published William Gibson novel into my local Staples and ask them to photocopy it, they will take one look at the copyright notice and refuse my request. Why should I object if a piece of software does the same?

Bill Thompson, technology consultant
If we are to push for greater respect for copyright and for digital rights management system among the network community then we need reciprocal action from the rights holders
Bill Thompson
Digital rights management is about providing technological means for asserting legally enforceable rights to control what is done with music, writing, software and other products of creativity.

If copyright is a good thing, and most of us seem to support giving authors the ability to sell their work and decide who gets to copy it, then protecting copyright should surely be a good thing too.

In this light, bringing the Linux-using community into the rights management world makes a lot of sense.

Because if Linux does not support rights management then Linux users will either have to do without access to e-books, music, movies and all other forms of digitally signed and protected materials - or write their own programs to break whatever protection is provided, irrespective of the legal rights or artistic desires of the copyright owners.

This, of course, is just what happened with the DeCSS program, written to crack the rather shoddy encryption on commercial DVD movies so that a DVD player could be written for Linux.

Because licensed DVD players were only available for Macintosh and Windows computers, programmers took matters into their own hands and the court cases are still rippling around the world.

Cracked copy

In fact, there is a general belief among activist programmers that somehow every protection system can just be coded around.

They think that it will always be possible to develop new software that breaks whatever protection scheme is in place, whether it is there to prevent breaches of copyright law, filter access to websites by those living in closed societies or just avoid the inconvenience of not being able to play a DVD on my computer.

But should we just accept this? Or should we be encouraging greater respect for the law and for the technologies that support it?

The US Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), and the European Union Copyright Directive, shortly to become law over here, provide legal protection for technologies that are used to limit access to copyright material.

The laws have been widely criticised because they give the rights holders too much control, but often the claims are overstated.

Pages of a book, BBC
Copyright controls limit what you can do with books
For example, lawyer and rights campaigner Lawrence Lessig complains that if an e-book will not let me cut and paste material then I cannot use extracts in a review.

Of course, I could always just type the extracts out again, as I would do with a physical book, but that does not seem to occur to the critics.

But if we are to push for greater respect for copyright and for digital rights management system among the network community then we need reciprocal action from the rights holders.

In the US, the Recording Industry Association of America is suing college students for making music files available for sharing, while the Motion Picture Association of America is trying to persuade states to pass laws (so-called super-DMCAs) that would make it illegal to run a wireless network in your home without permission from your ISP.

It is no wonder that the internet community is so suspicious of, and angry with, the rights holders and their defenders when we see this sort of heavy-handed action.

Yet I still feel that the long-term answer is not be to abandon legally-backed copy protection, but to aim for a more reasonable approach to laws which can, if properly applied, act in the interests of us all.

Apart from those who see any form of copyright as an infringement of their natural freedom, of course.

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Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.

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