The relevance of encryption is that encryption is a device for turning bitstreams into property, by creating the power to exclude.

-- Eben Moglen


The term "computer literacy" appears with great regularity in discourse on modern education. Bill Clinton's second inaugural address stressed the need for reading and arithmetic, and, although it was unspoken, it may be inferred that the missing part of the time-honored triad -- writing -- seemed inessential. After all, now we have "copying" and "clicking." Early nineties enthusiasm for hypertext supposed that the new electronic reading was itself a form of writing. The reader, it appeared, had been empowered. With the help of the Internet, students are now writing (ripping) a lot of CD-ROMs. "Wait!" says the Motion Picture Association of America, "This is not the literacy we want!"

As the entertainment and marketing industries further invest themselves in the business of coercive media -- protocol engineering, lobbying, acquisition, and legal warfare -- the harsher terms of exchange that they have already negotiated are beginning to interfere with things that ought to be legal. Under the influence of corporate lobbying, U.S. laws now find proprietary claims far more interesting than fair use doctrine. The idea of free speech, it seems, has no bearing on computer languages. Instead, computer language is metaphorized as the "lock" that protects intellectual property. This puts open source software developers, who would simply like to view their DVDs within their Linux operating systems, in the position of law-breaking lock-pickers.

Steve Heckler, a senior vice president at Sony Pictures Entertainment, has declared that his company would

develop technology that transcends the individual user. We will firewall Napster at its source -- we will block it at your cable company, we will block it at your phone company, we will block it at your ISP. We will firewall it at your PC. [1]

Given that audio CD sales have actually increased since Napster was introduced [ 2 ], some skepticism is in order. Even if it is agreed that duplicating copyrighted CD's is wrong, the authoritarian power Heckler envisions is disturbing. To block and firewall as he suggests presupposes consolidated ownership of Internet service providers, as well as the cooperation of (commercial) software developers. The insidious conglomeration of content producing corporations with telecommunication distribution corporations (AOL/TimeWarner) is just one indication that Heckler's claims should not be quickly dismissed.

The emergence of encryption as a means of copyright enforcement reveals a new spirit of closedness in the development of media. It appears that media content so encrypted will never "fall into" the public domain in the sense that it does in print. Likewise "fair use" is sacrificed. Accessing protected digital content requires algorithmic "player" software that is licensed by media corporations. This represents an expansion of the rights of such copyright holders, who have arrogated to themselves a new revenue stream: decryption algorithm licensing. According to this arrangement, users will now pay licensing fees each time they buy or upgrade software capable of decrypting the files they already own. Moreover, the terms according to which companies are allowed to author player software will be used to curtail user control over access to encrypted content. (Can you avoid the commercial messages?)

BardCode spotlights the looming constriction of the public domain that is ushered in by cryptographic enclosure movement, a movement codified into U.S. law by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

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