Bad Hacker, Good Hacker

Much Ado about Stem Cells


Stop. Do not Copy


Suppose you purchase a copy of Time magazine and find an article on the politics of Zimbabwe very interesting. You want your friend Bob to read the article. Can you just give him your magazine? Of course you can. Can Bob then pass it on to some of his friends? Sure he can. Can a library purchase just one copy and make it available to all of its readers to read. Sure, happens all the time. Can you make a photocopy of the column and give it to Bob. Oh well, in most cases, the answer is yes. How about you make hundreds of photocopies and hand them out at the street corner to all people who care to take one? Definitely not!


There may not seem much of a difference between handing out an original copy of a magazine for many people to read and copying the same for the readers. But there is a crucial difference and the difference is based on copyright law. Every country or jurisdiction has its own set of copyright laws and these laws though similar, vary quite a lot. Copyright law (and similar restrictions on patents and products) is designed to protect “artistic value” and “intellectual property”. The article in the magazine belongs to the publisher of the magazine, and only the publisher is allowed to make copies and then distribute (sell or give away as per the publishers discretion). The discussion about copyright in this column will reflect the current US laws on copyright.


Copyright protects the authors, publishers and other creators of information, art, writing, books, music, videos, movies, pictures and such artifacts. Copyright, in a nutshell, creates ownership of creative works and prevents stealing of the same via copying. The first copyright law was enacted in England in 1710, and the US adopted copyright in 1790. The US law has been revised in 1831, 1870, 1909, 1976 and 2000, often to keep up with technological innovations.


Copyright is not a complete ban on copying. A purposely-crafted loophole in the law allows for copying for “fair use”. That mean, if you like the article in Time magazine you could make a few copies to keep and throw the magazine away. You could also copy to let Bob read the article, if you do not want to give your copy of the magazine to him. In case of computer software, or music, or videos, you could make a copy for use in another location (like a copy of the music to play in your car).


Prevention of copying in the Western world is largely based on a deeply cultivated honor system. Most ordinary citizens do not copy books, music, videos, preferring to buy them because that is the “right thing to do”. Breaking the law, even if it is easy and not detectable is a crime and a large majority has respect for the law. Hence, most vendors of artistic works, in fact have nothing to worry about. Of course, things do get copied and sure there is loss of revenue due to copying, but the loss is not significant enough to do something about it.


In addition to the honor system, people do not copy, because it is not convenient to do so and not financially very rewarding. Before the advent of copy machines, of course, copying books was not even possible. The earlier copyright laws prevented plagiarism. For example it would be illegal for some ordinary Joe from copying in his own hand, works from Shakespeare and passing it off as his own writings. The typewriter and then the copy machine made copying easier. However, even with a copy machine, copying a book is a painful task. Most people found it easier to buy the book than to make a copy. Hence, copying was not really a problem.


The first real threat to copying was the audiotape machines, particularly the audiocassette. Piracy of audiocassettes became more common and the music industry just had to bear with it. Luckily, the cassette reproduction was not as good as records or CDs so piracy was kind of limited by quality. Then came the VCR. Two VCR’s can copy a videotape, but the quality is less than desirable.


Honor system aside, the incentive to copy rises with cost of the original. When movies became available at about $80 per tape, copying was rampant. Soon the movie vendors found that if they dropped the price to about $20 people stopped copying and purchased the original. In fact, they made more money selling videos at $20 than at $80 (due to enlarged volume).


To stem the loss of revenue from the few who choose to copy rather than buy, the industry started incorporating copy protection schemes. The first copy protection scheme was a method called Macrovision, invented by a company called Macrovision. Macrovision is a special invisible signal that is recorded along with the video on videotapes. A TV set is not affected by this signal but it fools a VCR, and when a Macrovision encoded video signal is recorded on a VCR the picture gets unstable and almost unviewable. Of course it is possible to defeat Macrovision by changing the design of the VCR recording circuitry, but VCR manufacturers were pressurized by the movie industry not to do it.


When the PC’s started becoming popular, in the late 1980’s software vendors found copying to be a real problem. The price of software was quite high and this promoted copying. It is too easy to make copies of software—one person buys it and makes copies for all the buddies, neighbors and other leeches. Some folks claimed this is permissible under the fair use clause, but it became quite clear that fair use was being stretched. So some software vendors turned to copy protecting the software.


Software is a string of digital bits stored on magnetic media such as hard disks or floppy diskettes. Any computer can make identical copies of the software—how can one copy protect it? The copy protection on diskettes involved techniques such as “nibble counting” and “hidden tracks”. These are schemes that rely on some non-standard way of recording floppy disks such that the data is unreadable by the computer running standard software, but some special software provided by the software vendors can read the disks but will not copy them. Of course, there are ways to bypass these schemes.


The copy protected software soon died. Consumers refused to buy disks that they could not copy or backup. In fact there was a backlash, honest people said “I do not steal software, if you make it difficult for me to make a backup copy, as you don’t trust me, I will not trust you. I will not buy your product.” Other vendors notably Microsoft started selling software at prices so low that people did not copy them.  The copy protected software vendors went bankrupt for loss of sales.


Since those days, we have come full circle. The current technology with recordable CDs, networks, massive digitization makes copying trivial. Producing high quality MP3 copies of music and sharing them over the Internet is quite easy. “Napster” is a service that pushed “fair use” to its limits. If someone has a copy of a hit song, he or she could publish this fact on the Internet, using Napster, and then all those who want this song for free can suddenly become this person’s friend and download the song from his/her computer. After a long battle in courts, the legal eagles decided such use was not fair and Napster had to shut down.


A fancy scheme was invented for DVD video disks (called Divx) that make it possible to create DVD’s such that the movie on it can be viewed only a few times. Then the disk becomes useless. Quite an invention, luckily it died, as no consumer wants to buy such stunted products.


The software from Microsoft has now reached the high ends of expense (encouraging copying) and Microsoft has decided to put an elaborate “registration” system in the new XP series of software products to make copying well next to impossible. Of course the registration strategy is quite nefarious and is an invasion of privacy (the software will contact Microsoft every so often to make sure it is running on a computer authorized to run that copy). Whether this will create a backlash is yet to be seen.


The new copyright law called Digital Millennium Copyright Act (or DCMA) takes government control to a new height. This law, amongst other things, makes it illegal for anyone to create methods that bypass copy protection schemes. Research into analyzing encryption schemes to bypass them would be illegal. If I tell you how to bypass a particular copy protection method, I am guilty. That actually, in my opinion, infringes free speech rights and makes criminals out of people involved in academic pursuits.


The parade continues. Some claim that Macrovision has a new scheme by which converting music videos to MP3 digital copies would be made impossible. There may not be much truth to this rumor, but it is a sad commentary on how the music industry wants to reach out and harass the consumer. Over the years, copy protection schemes have been considered an affront to the honest consumer. The majority of these have proven unsuccessful. We should hope the current crop of greedy misguided ventures go the way of its predecessors.


Partha Dasgupta is on the faculty of the Computer Science and Engineering Department at Arizona State University in Tempe. His specializations are in the areas of Operating Systems, Cryptography and Networking. His homepage is at




Partha Dasgupta