DiViDed Loyalties?

"It all started modestly enough, back in September 1999, when 15-year-old Jon Johansen of Larvik, Norway, decided he'd had enough. He was sick of having to tie up an entire computer with the Microsoft Windows operating system just to watch DVDs, when he, like many programmers, preferred to use Linux, a lesser-known alternative to Windows. But no authorized DVD players could run on Linux.

"Working with two other hackers he'd met on the Internet, the rail-thin, bespectacled teen set to work at cracking the encryption code (called CSS, for Content Scramble System), which blocks the picture and sound and protects DVDs from being copied or used on unlicensed players.

"In short order, the trio (now calling themselves MoRE -- for Masters of Reverse Engineering) found the CSS algorithm and wrote the decryption code, which Johansen slyly named DeCSS, for Decrypt the Content Scramble System. With the code cracked, DVDs could be played on any system."

Johansen subsequently won a $2,000 national student prize for academic excellence. What did he do with the money? "I took $1,200," he recalled, "and bought a [licensed] high-end Sony DVD player for my TV."

[On January 14, 2000, eight movie studios, all members of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), sued three hackers in federal court in Manhattan. MPAA chief Jack Valenti announced that within a year, Hollywood features would be available for legal download via the Internet. Moreover, industry technicians "are going to make it very hard to decrypt [movie files]. They're going to pile on so many [phony] algorithms, it's going to take weeks to figure out." Was Johansen skeptical? Perhaps: Cracking the CSS code had presented problems too. But, Johansen later claimed, "it took us eight or nine hours to figure out." (Johansen was later acquitted; he was perfectly entitled, a Norwegian court ruled, to view DVDs which he had legally purchased in any way he chose.)]

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