June 15, 2024

Nobody Disputes This Post

Friday’s debate between Dean Garfield (MPAA’s head lawyer) and Wendy Seltzer (EFF lawyer) at Princeton was fairly interesting. I’m hoping video will be available sometime soon.

At one point, though, Dean Garfield said something that totally floored me. He was talking about technologies like Audible Magic that claim to be able to detect and block copyrighted music as it passes across a network. He asserted that that technology would be effective in stopping infringement. That’s a pretty iffy claim already. Then he went on to assert that “nobody disputes” the effectiveness of filtering.

That’s a pretty nervy statement to make in a debate. First, it’s obviously false. To give one well-known example, the computer science professors’ amicus brief in the Grokster case disputed that very claim. Two or three signers of the brief were in the room, and one of them (me) was moderating the debate.

Second, saying “nobody disputes X” is a questionable debating tactic, since it practically invites somebody in the room to falsify your statement by disputing X. Which is exactly what I felt compelled to do. Several members of the audience told me later that they would have raised their hands and disputed the effectiveness of filtering, had I not done so.

Third, if you’re going to make a statement that nobody disputes X, you ought to be able to back it up with strong evidence in support of X. When challenged to give even one example of an ordinary site where filtering was effectively preventing infringement, Mr. Garfield was unable to respond. He also dodged the question of whether the filtering software he advocates has undergone independent testing.

So why did he say that nobody disputes the effectiveness of filtering? I can only surmise that he felt compelled to say it because it is an MPAA/RIAA talking point at the moment. The old talking point used to be that filtering works. The new version, apparently, is that everybody agrees that filtering works. The change, if indeed there is one, shows that skepticism about filtering is spreading. It’s an old lawyer’s trick to assert that a claim is undisputed, in order to avoid addressing the contrary evidence.

Still, the debate was on the whole a success. Students who had studied the issue had the chance to cross-examine the speakers. Students who had not studied the issue heard the basic points made. The best possible debate, though, would have fewer talking points from both sides.


  1. “For example, who was the guy who thought the shift-key-defeatable copy protection was a good idea?…”

    My guess: a (not technically informed) lawyer went to the the software department and said “we MUST have flawless copy protection on our products.” The software guys, not wanting to enter a lengthy debate on exactly why that is impossible, or imply that they are incompetent, shrugged their shoulders and came up with a half-working solution.

    I was asked something similar once, to implement a web video system that would be “streaming-only,” i.e. you could watch the video at the site but not download it. Of course this is impossible, but rather than get in a big argument (and possibly lose the whole video project) I simply told Quicktime Player not to display the “save” option. Trivial to bypass but I can tell the lawyer I did my best! 🙂

  2. dr2chase says

    as the movie and recording industries are so notoriously free of deception?

    Good, interesting point, but “nobody disputes” that the DRM they have deployed thus far is terrible. That needs an explanation, and most technical people I know are charitably assuming stupidity. Look in the comments above, we’re actually offering advice. Keep in mind that the software industry is not exactly lacking for Incompetent Software Hucksters; in a head-to-head deception and mendacity contest, I’d bet on the software industry. I mean, we sold the world stock in Internet Pet Food companies. Beat that, if you can.

  3. Jeremy Leader says

    Honestly, they probably just actually believe the stuff the sales&marketing guys from the DRM software firms tell them. Ignoring snake-oil in infosec marketing has become second nature to many of us, but some exec’s at a movie/recording studio probably haven’t had to develop that skill.

    Do you think that lack of skill is because movie/recording studio execs aren’t used to dealing with people who try to mislead them, as the movie and recording industries are so notoriously free of deception?

  4. Filtering is actually possible, i.e. selecting desirable files, rejecting undesirable files. However, this is only where both sender and receiver are interested in achieving this filtering.

    What is not possible is using filtering to prevent undesirable communication from occurring on a channel to which uncooperative people have legitimate access.

    So, essentially, it would be possible to enable users of file-sharing networks to voluntarily filter out all files apart from those certified as Creative Commons licensed. But, it would not be possible to filter out copyright infringing files whilst people remained interested in sharing them.

  5. dr2chase says

    I see many phrases of definity…

    The RIAA is wrong in thinking that they can effectively filter, or that they can prevent dissemination of music that they have attached DRM to. Wrong, as in 100% wrong. (Well, given that we often use probabilistic algorithms with asteroid-strike probabilities of failure, 99.999999% wrong, on a yearly basis.)

    Filtering can be prevented by encryption. SSL and SSH are proven and widespread. Good encryption (as opposed to the fairy dust employed by the record companies) is based on sound mathematical analysis AND practical tests for backdoors (power consumption is one such backdoor; so is answer delay). If either protocol is broken, a new one will replace it. So, flat impossible; I’m 100% certain of this. (The protocols do in fact get improved over time as weaknesses are discovered). This is a case where industry stupidity could be working against them; just because their encryption is busted, does not mean that everyone else’s is.
    It is impossible, unless you assume digital signals out to the audio transducer surgically implanted in the bones of my head, to prevent someone from performing an analog-to-digital rip of music, and republishing the digital result without any DRM on it.
    It is difficult, though not statistically impossible in the same way that filtering is impossible, to embed a signature in music that would survive both the digital(original)-to-analog(playback)-to-digital(rip)-to-digital(compressed)-to-digital(uncompressed) process and the determined attempts of hackers to remove it or obscure it. If any particular compression technology (e.g. MP3, AAC, OGG) happens to help remove the signature, that one will be adopted by hackers.

    If it happens that you work for the record industry, you would do well to educate them. They would do better to base their business plans on reality instead of lies told by snake oil salesmen.

  6. Dammit — I would think of a way to break that copy protection right after. It depends on getting two copies of the album-on-a-particle, however. You can extract half the information (e.g. momentum) from one and the other half (e.g. position) from the other, and store both classically. Then prepare your own particles in identical states with a rejection procedure, similar to how the originals would have been mastered. (Of course there’s also the usual circumventions of the analog hole or getting access to the original instead of just to DRM-encumbered copies.)

    (In practise, you’d use the quantum trick on a decryption key like a license file, rather than on the work itself.)

  7. Unbreakable copy protection does exist. It’s useless, though. Take your copyrighted work and encode it in the quantum state of a particle. You can never duplicate that state exactly without altering the original particle, so the work really just “moves” when you try to copy it, or is even outright erased. Such copies cannot be further copied. On the other hand, they also can’t be played back, unless the encoding lets you discard part of each quantum state (projecting onto an eigenstate) and still have a usable copy, which is then a classical digital copy that can be napsterized easily. 🙂

  8. Dr. Felten: I’d much rather see a transcript than a video.

    Johnnie Rose: Some parts of the world are indeed well-defined: True is not false, black is not white, one plus one equals two. e^(pi*i) = -1, and unbreakable copyprotection doesn’t exist. Just because some truths are less obvious than others doesn’t make them any less true. That’s one of the nice things about the truth: it’s true no matter how many people believe it.


  9. Trust that MPAA representative Dean Garfield was far from desperate; he handled himself rather well given the slightly biased crowd.

    I see many phrases of definity in your post, ian: “the RIAA is wrong”; “you could never possibly design”; “terms of this debate change radically.” You should know that the world is not nearly so well-defined =).

  10. That’s hilarious. This is an instance where it really would have behooved the speaker to have a slightly better understanding of the involved technology. It is mathematically impossible to do what they are talking about; even the most basic public-key encryption scheme could defeat this.

    This is a sign of desperation. Because once everyone realizes that the RIAA is wrong, and you could never possibly design a programmatic filter to distinguish what’s copy protected and what isn’t, the terms of this debate change radically.

  11. Is this really an issue of MPAA/RIAA talking points being the culprit? They may mention it, but I doubt there is a conspiracy to push them. I’m a big fan of “never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidiy.”

    Honestly, they probably just actually believe the stuff the sales&marketing guys from the DRM software firms tell them. Ignoring snake-oil in infosec marketing has become second nature to many of us, but some exec’s at a movie/recording studio probably haven’t had to develop that skill.

  12. dr2chase says

    I am not sure it is so much talking point, as just now stepping out of the echo chamber. I think these guys believe some things that are not true, and this one of them. It would be delightful to study the (mis)information flow in the music and movie industries.

    For example, who was the guy who thought the shift-key-defeatable copy protection was a good idea? How about the protection that could be defeated with a magic marker? Who thought it was ok to slap the CD trademark on products that (because of inept copy protection) didn’t actually conform to the CD standards? This is really quite a track record of incompetence, and for me is a good argument for keeping these guys well away from any technology-related legislation.