USA Today Editorial


Hollywood's Hush Tactics

The entertainment industry can normally be counted on to champion the First Amendment. And for good reason. Without the right to free speech, where would it be? But that devotion apparently doesn't extend to speech that could threaten its profit margins.

How else to explain the industry's aggressive campaign to silence magazines, Web sites and academics?

At issue is the publication of software designed to break various encryption codes that the recording and movie industries are trying to build into their products. The encryption is supposed to prevent illegal copying. So, since the code could be used to pirate copyrighted material (it has other legitimate uses), the industry has set out to muzzle those who dare publish it.

Last week, for instance, the recording industry bullied a Princeton University computer scientist into suspending the release of a program he'd developed that would break the industry's newest copy-protection technology, known as a watermark.

And Tuesday, the U.S. Appeals Court in New York heard the case of an online hacker magazine that was barred from publishing a code that can break open a DVD's encryption program. Last August, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) convinced a federal judge to block publication of the code, called DeCSS.

The fruitless campaign is the cyberworld equivalent of whack-a-mole. Drafts of the watermark-breaking code are already available on the Internet. Links to DeCSS code, meanwhile, are everywhere. A Carnegie Mellon University professor even has a DeCSS "gallery" on his Web page that includes, among other things, a Haiku version, a rock-'n'-roll version and a dramatic reading of the code. (The MPAA sent him a threatening letter demanding "immediate removal" of the gallery.)

In Fact, no sooner had the MPAA won its court victory than other versions of the DVD-cracking software emerged. One is only seven lines long, short enough to fit on a business card. No word yet on how the industry plans to stamp that one out.

The entertainment world's fears are understandable. Digital technology allows unlimited, perfect copying of songs, movies and videos with the click of a mouse - for pirates and innocent users alike.

But one would think that an industry so dependent on the First Amendment would search for other ways of dealing with its pirating fears before waging an all-out war to stamp out speech it doesn't like.