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DVD appeal to tackle copyrights and free speech

In a case that envelops two of the most bitter battles currently being waged in the online arena, a rogue hacker magazine is set to fight round two against The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) today, arguing an appeal that gnaws at the heart of copyright and free-speech issues.

2600:The Hacker Quarterly, a telephone and computer hacker magazine, is expected to argue that the US Department of Justice (DOJ) overly stretched its interpretation of the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) when it ruled last January that the magazine could not publish or provide online links to a source code that descrambles digital versatile disk (DVD) encryption.

The decryption code, called DeCSS (De Contents Scramble System) was originally intended to descramble DVD encryption so that DVDs could be played on Linux-based systems. However, the MPAA, an umbrella group for eight powerful Hollywood studios, saw the publishing of the code as a direct threat to the copyright privileges of films. The group claimed that by providing the descrambling code, the magazine was virtually giving people the key to steal protected materials.

At the crux of the battle is the DMCA, a 1998 law that prohibits cracking access codes and is designed to protect digitally recorded material such as movies, software and books from illegal use. While the MPAA is crying foul under the terms of the DMCA, the magazine, with support from the non-profit civil liberties group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), is arguing that the Act is being interpreted too broadly and is beginning to elbow aside First Amendment rights.

In the brief filed for its appeal, 2600 argued that it was "providing truthful information about a matter of public significance", which is protected by the First Amendment, and outlawing the circulation of this type of information leads to self-censorship.

DMCA has been at the heart of a maelstrom of debate as opponents argue that the Act inhibits computer science research and steps on the toes of fair use rules, that allow for the public to use copyrighted material for non-commercial purposes.

One of the most recent spats over DMCA came last week when the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) asked a professor who participated in one of the group's hacking challenges not to publish his findings, saying that by doing so, he would be violating the Act. Princeton University professor Edward Felten and his team were just one of only two groups that were able to crack the watermark technology SDMI presented in a hacking challenge.

The professor demurred to SDMI's request, and some DMCA opponents are using the case as ammunition to prove that the Act stymies academic research.

The DMCA has also been the thorn in the side of the high-profile online song swapping service Napster, whose case has raised myriad questions as to where fair use begins and copyright protection ends.

Any and all of these concerns could be addressed in the 2600 appeal as the film studios stand firm over copyright protection and the magazine touts First Amendment rights.

The appeal, formerly called Universal versus Remeirdes, will go before New York's Circuit Court of Appeals today.

2600:The Hacker Quarterly can be contacted at http://www.2600.com/ .

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