Chances are that you never heard about 08-f8-10-01-9c-73-e2-5a-d7-40-55-c4-62-55-87-bf, and that nobody cares about that number at all. Now, add one to every byte, and all of a sudden, the resulting number becomes a key ingredient to writing an HD-DVD player for Linux, which some argue makes this number a reverse-engineering weapon that exposes you to legal threats.
How did we get there? According to John Dvorak, this is all the fault of the lawyers. I think that Dvorak is missing the point, big times. We got there because of the revolutionary democratic power newly granted by the Internet, the power for anybody to publish and be read by a large number of people all over the world. I already wrote in an earlier post that I believe democracy itself is going to change because of this kind of technology. But in the present case, this is not about democracy, but about secrets, about what some call “big money”.
Cash can’t buy secrecy anymore
It used to be the case that a big pile of cash and a big team of lawyers could easily buy you secrecy. There were only a small number of people to bribe or threaten, which made it easy to kill a story. This actually still seems to work pretty well when big monetary or legal interests are at stake. But it does not work against the people, against a crowd, as the Digg example demonstrated plainly. Nowadays, when you try to hide something that people want exposed, you simply don’t stand a chance.
Why was there a revolt against Digg taking down stories showing the “secret magic number”, then? Many users simply want free software. Obviously, they also want to watch HD-DVDs. There are plenty of tools that companies can use to deter these people from obtaining what they want: patents, DMCA takedown notices to try to “hide” some internal encoding keys, and so on. This will simply not work, because as the GNU web page clearly says, free software is about freedom, not (just) price. People tend to react when they feel a legitimate freedom is being taken away.
What does this mean for companies in the media business? And first, let’s think about why they care. The problem they face is piracy. There are really two forms of piracy: rampant piracy, where a noticeable fraction of the user base prefers to use illegitimate copies of the media that they copy one at a time, and organized piracy, where parallel distribution channels perform massive copies. These two forms of piracy require different angles of attack.
Organized piracy, like any form of organized crime, can only be dealt with using state-enforced means (police, justice, diplomacy). It often crosses the borders, making it a bit harder to fight. A recent extreme example of this is the unofficial state-owned Disneyland in China. You cannot fight this kind of intellectual property theft without going directly talking to China and teaching them how they could benefit from respecting intellectual property. Now, before Americans look down on Chinese folks too harshly, they should look back to their own history and remember that back when the US were a developing country, Americans did not respect the British copyrights too well either…
Rampant piracy is a different matter entirely. Taking down “magic numbers” is definitely not going to work. There are simply too many people who care about what they see as their freedom, and they are spread in too many countries to fight efficiently from a legal point of view. It’s not my job to help the media industries figure that one out, but Steve Job’s thoughts on music might be a good starting point…