Worse Than Nothing

Back to the WCT

At the start of this chapter, I wrote that the WCT created the digital-lock rules that the nations of the world turned into domestic law, with small variations from state to state. But the truth is, most nations have followed the lead of the U.S. in going much further than the WCT requires. The WCT calls for laws against breaking a lock to commit an act of copyright infringement, but the DMCA, here in the U.S., makes it illegal to break digital locks, period. Other countries around the world have followed suit, often at the open, explicit urging of the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and lobbyists from the U.S. entertainment industry. Which means that the problem is even worse than the WCT suggests.

The first person to publish a program to break the digital locks on old-style DVDs, in 1999, was Jon Lech Johansen, a fifteen-year-old Norwegian teenager. “DVD Jon” took up the project because his computer ran the GNU/Linux operating system, for which the movie studios wouldn’t license a DVD player. In order to watch the DVDs he bought, he had to break their locks. Seven years later, Muslix64 broke HD-DVD’s DRM for similar reasons—he wanted to watch a legitimate out-of-region DVD that he’d purchased. Both of these seminal figures in the history of digital locks were inspired not by “piracy” but by frustration with the limitations put on the legitimate media they’d paid good money for.

In 2007, NBC and Apple had a contractual dispute over the terms of sale for Apple’s iTunes Store. NBC’s material was withdrawn from iTunes for about nine months. In 2008, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University released a paper investigating the file-sharing impact of this blackout (“Converting Pirates Without Cannibalizing Purchasers: The Impact of Digital Distribution on Physical Sales and Internet Piracy”). What they found was that the contract dispute resulted in a spike of downloads on “pirate” sites, and not just of NBC material—it seemed that once people who had been in the habit of buying their shows on iTunes found their way onto the free-for-all file-sharing sites, they clicked on everything that looked interesting. Downloads of NBC shows went up a lot, and downloads of everything else went up a little.

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