Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Copyright a Number

For most of the last few days, the Internet has been riddled with a fairly major intellectual property fiasco. For an idea of how major this fiasco is, just do a quick Google for it. Let me start the story from the very beginning.

A bright young person with a lot of passion and time on his hands came up with a method to circumvent the AACS encryption system used to protect video on HD-DVD and BD. It is a classic example of how a creative person without much money can beat the artificial barriers created by large companies that spend millions researching these barriers. Unlike other previous published cracks, this one is quite difficult to plug. This essentially means that AACS is a dead duck. Skipping the details on why it is so, it suffices to say that in order to plug the hole, the manufacturers would have to void all current players and come up with a new DRM scheme and players for that. A very expensive proposition indeed.

So, what they have done instead, is to go after every person who publishes that sequence of numbers. In order to do that, they are using the draconic DMCA law, which thankfully only applies to the US. They have sent takedown notices to any and every website that publishes that number. This brings into light a particularly interesting intellectual property issue. It is not possible to copyright a number. So, you cannot threaten anyone from publishing a number, no matter how big or magical that number is. If it was possible to copyright a number, I'd certainly like to copyright 0 and have everyone pay me royalties for doing anything with it. So, the AACS people are actually using DMCA, which outlaws any method of circumventing copy protection. So, the real question is whether publishing a number is sufficient to break the law. This will have serious consequences as these numbers aren't public anyway. So, anyone working with sufficiently large numbers would have to be very careful about breaking this law.

Intellectual property is important. Therefore, it needs to be properly managed. This is a very good example of how not to manage your intellectual property rights. These large companies just don't seem to understand that this is not the way to do it. They will continue to be pwned by someone with enough brains and a lot of time on his hands. Human ingenuity must never be under-estimated.

UPDATE@1945: Related news made it onto the FT. The article talks about the user revolt at when the website tried to comply with the AACS takedown notices and censor it's users. The users revolted and the site had to recapitulate.

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