May/June 2002

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Unscrambling DVD

The imbroglio over control of DVD technology seems like much ado about nothing.


It was shaping up to be a classic consumer products dustup. On one side stood Sony and Philips, on the other Time Warner and Toshiba. At stake was who would control the standard for a new generation of high-capacity digital disc that could play not only music, but movies, too. Sony-Philips’ big gun was the multimedia CD and Time Warner-Toshiba had the super-density disc.

For nine months in 1995, these two camps hissed and spat at each other. The Sony-Philips side was particularly hopped up. Philips, after all, had invented the wildly successful CD format in the late ’70s with Sony’s strong support. And Sony wanted a chance to settle some old scores over its crushing defeat in the ugly Betamax-VHS wars of 1975-76. Time Warner and Toshiba, for their part, bitterly denounced their rival’s multimedia CD technology and swore that in an all-out marketing war, their own super-density disc would win handily.

Well, that was no good. Not with all the lessons that had been learned about how competing standards bog down consumer acceptance. So IBM and the major film studios stepped in, smacked both sides around a bit and, in August 1995, forced an agreement to combine the two technologies into a single standard. The standard would be called DVD, for digital versatile disc—a name only a committee could love.


Warner Brothers? The major film studios? Curious that the movie industry would play such a prominent role in the creation of a consumer electronics standard. On the other hand, we’re talking here about a whole new way to distribute movies. Given that a huge chunk of the film business is based on post-cinema distribution, filmmakers were not about to let this thing loose without proper supervision. And proper supervision meant that there would be no new digital movie distribution mechanism without first addressing some bothersome issues of the existing videocassette standard.

What really gets up the nose of a content producer is unauthorized copying of copyrighted work. A videocassette or CD can be copied at will, for the most part, and that copy can be played anywhere in the world on any old VCR or CD player. (Note that the "R" in VCR stands for "recorder"—a fact that movie people just hate.) The DVD standard, if properly executed, would be an opportunity to sort out the whole mess. So, even though the DVD technical standard had been worked out, the studios forced a yearlong delay in the consumer launch of DVD players until suitable copy protection could be built into the discs.

What they came up with was the Content Scrambling System. CSS would mulch the contents of a DVD, but there was more. Unscrambling a DVD would require a player that was licensed to do the decoding, which licenses were only available from an industry group called the DVD Copy Control Association.

Region Codes

While they were at it, CSS designers decided to fix another long-standing irritant. Each DVD would contain a region code indicating where in the world it could be played. So CSS licensees must build corresponding region codes into every DVD player. If a DVD produced in one region is played in a player from some other region, the codes won’t match and all you’ll get is a whole lotta nuthin’. This helps control the home release of movies in different countries so you don’t send your DVD of a movie to friends in Japan, when that movie is still playing in theatres there. Region coding is also very handy for denying certain kinds of content to entire populations . . . but industry groups don’t like to talk about that.


Of course, DVDs are not just for movies. They’re also a great way to store huge amounts of pure data. So much so that DVD drives are now built into most computers—as long as they run Windows or Mac operating systems.

If you were of the Linux persuasion, however, it seemed a built-in DVD drive was not in your future—mainly because the licensing process for CSS and its inherent restrictions collided heavily with the open source licensing inherent in Linux. Remember: No CSS, no ability to play commercial DVDs.

Unless you cracked CSS, which turned out to be easy because CSS basically sucks. A group in Germany (DoD—Drink or Die) and in Norway (MoRE—Masters of Reverse Engineering) bashed away at CSS until they busted it, releasing the unscrambling code as DeCSS to the Internet in October 1999. With DeCSS, you could play DVDs on Linux machines.

This did not go over well. The Motion Picture Association and the DVD Copy Control Association went into a worldwide litigation frenzy, which included having Jon Johansen, a 15-year-old Norwegian and co-author of DeCSS, arrested. At the same time, the MPA pursued a kind of Internet whack-a-mole, running after sites all over the Web that posted DeCSS for a few days and then dropped out of sight. That is, until a feisty hacker magazine called 2600 posted the code on its site and left it there, finally giving the MPA a stationary target. And blast away the MPA did, winning some early battles and getting all the usual injunctions. The matter is now under appeal.

What’s strange here is that you could use DeCSS to pirate DVDs, but there’s very little point. The DVD blanks are expensive, the burners are expensive, and the whole process is horribly cumbersome and time-consuming. If illegal copying (as opposed to unrestricted playback) were your game, you would be much better served by investing in some heavy-duty bit-wise copiers to copy the DVDs, encryption and all. Much more telling is the over-the-top reaction of the old-school content providers as they flail away at any threat to control their new medium. Consider this one of the early skirmishes in a much broader war of who owns what in an all-digital world.

Mark Tamminga ( practices law and fiddles with software at Gowling Lafleur HendersonLLP in Toronto.