November 30, 2023

Archives for April 2003

Costs vs. Benefits

Yesterday, the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference had a session on the copy protection wars. Louis Trager reports, in a story headlined “Hollywood Survival Isn’t Worth Sacrificing Tech Freedom, Activists Say”, in today’s Washington Internet Daily:

Legal restrictions on technology and content copying pose a far greater risk to society than the extinction of the established entertainment industry for failure to adjust to a digital economy, activist speakers said Wed. at an O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference.

Movie and music industry lobbyists portray copyright infringment as a disease whose cure is technology regulation. One way to respond is to argue that the cure is worse than the disease. That is probably a correct judgment, though it is a hard argument to win.

More to the point, it’s an argument that should be irrelevant to the real policy debate. Framing the question as a comparison between the costs of the disease and the costs of the treatment buys into an analytical mistake that the content lobbyists have injected into this debate.

The right question to ask is not whether the treatment is worse than the disease, but whether the treatment does more harm than good.

Imagine a medieval doctor who treats a gravely ill patient by bleeding out a quart of the patient’s blood. The doctor argues that this is the correct treatment, because the blood loss does less damage to the patient than the disease is already doing. We rightly reject the doctor’s argument, because we know the treatment is harming the patient without doing anything to cure the disease.

By this standard, it’s clear that the content industries’ regulatory prescription is bad medicine. We have taken the medicine of technology regulation, but the patient’s health hasn’t improved. The disease is as bad as ever, and all Dr. Valenti has to offer is a bigger dose of the same odd-smelling exilir.

Maybe it’s time to get a second opinion.

[Text modified at 10:45 AM: The original version of this entry had implied that the speakers at the O’Reilly conference had made the analytical mistake at issue. Louis Trager, the author of the quoted article, told me that I had misinterpreted his article in reaching that conclusion, so I revised the entry so as not to pass on the misinterpretation.]

Texas Trying to Sneak Through Super-DMCA

The Texas state legislature has reportedly suspended its rules today in order to consider the Super-DMCA legislation without the usually-required five days advance notice. This looks like an attempt to get the bill passed without allowing opponents a chance to properly debate it.

The legislative hearing is expected to start around 6:00 PM (Central time) today.


Cory Doctorow writes on Cruelty to Analog about an MPAA presentation to the ARDG, the group that is trying to bring Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) to analog content.

The presentation talks about a “rounding problem” that arises because of an assumption that analog DRM is unable to micromanage the use of content to the same degree that digital DRM can. When a work is converted from digital to analog form, the detailed DRM restrictions from the digital domain are supposed to be “rounded off” to some roughly equivalent analog restrictions, so that “equivalence” can be maintained between the digital and analog domains. A fight is brewing over whether to “round down” (so that the analog rules are more restrictive than the digital) or to “round up” (so that the analog rules are looser than the digital).

This debate is a wonderful illustration of how far off the rails the DRM “standardization” groups have gone. Rather than worrying about the lack of any effective digital DRM scheme, or about the lack of any effective analog DRM scheme, the group chooses instead to just assume that both exist, and to further assume that the two are incompatible. They then proceed to argue about the consequences of that incompatibility. Rather than arguing about strategy for resolving a hypothetical incompatibility between two hypothetical products, why not worry first about whether analog DRM can work at all?

There is a well-known pathology in standardization processes, in which the group argues obsessively over some trivial detail which becomes a proxy for deeper philosophical disagreements. The antidote is for somebody to yank the group back to reality by pointing out all of the deployed products that operate perfectly well without accounting for that detail. But this antidote only works when there are deployed systems that are known to work well. Perhaps it is inevitable that if you try to standardize a conjectural product category, you will become hopelessly entangled in minutiae.

Slashdot Interview

My Slashdot interview was just posted. Slashdot readers asked me several interesting questions about law and technology.

What Was Blackboard Thinking?

Most businesses know that it’s wise to honor the values of their customers. So you’ve got to wonder what Blackboard was thinking when it sued to block a conference presentation last weekend.

Blackboard’s customers are colleges and universities. As Karl-Friedrich Lenz observes, these are organizations that hold freedom of speech and freedom of inquiry as central values. Seeking an injunction against both speech and inquiry, as Blackboard did, and making that injunction so broad, has got to rub many of Blackboard’s customers the wrong way.

Blackboard’s defensive and somewhat misleading press release may be a sign of the bind it has created for itself. The release implies that each Blackboard product either is physically secure, or relies on cryptography for protection. The two students, Billy Hoffman and Virgil Griffith, were reportedly going to say that the product in question used neither method of security, but was basically open to abuse by anyone who could unscrew a few screws. There could have been a debate about who was right, but Blackboard wouldn’t allow that to happen. Most observers will conclude, sensibly, that Blackboard tried to block that debate because it expected to lose it.

Like most censorship attempts, Blackboad’s strategy has backfired. They have only drawn attention to the content they tried to suppress, so that more Blackboard customers know about the students’ conclusion that Blackboard’s technology is insecure. All this, plus an affront to the values of Blackboard’s customers.

Come to think of it, Blackboard may have done a small service to educators after all – by providing an instructive example of the perils of censorship.