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Monday, May 20, 2002
A Bad, sad Hollywood ending?


Forget about Bill Gates, folks. The biggest enemy of free software may be Senator Ernest F. Hollings. Legislation introduced in March, 2002, by the South Carolina Democrat to require that copyright-protection software be embedded in PCs, handheld computers, CD players -- and anything else that can play, record, or manipulate data -- could make open-source software such as the Linux operating system illegal.

Initially, the Hollings bill provoked a huge outcry mainly from consumer groups, plus makers of PCs and electronics gear. Now that the measure's full implications have sunk in, the usually vocal open-source community is starting to react as well.

Linux guru and Hewlett-Packard consultant Bruce Perens says Hollings-style copyright protection schemes are "a high-level concern" for open-source advocates, a point he has made to Hollings' aides and to protechnology Representative Rick Boucher [R-Va.]. Consumer-advocacy groups such as San Francisco's Electronic Frontier Foundation also are defending the open-source concept in negotiations between electronics manufacturers and entertainment companies that could result in new standards that outlaw the use of open-source components in new digital TV sets and tuners.

KEY ISSUE. Here's the crux of the issue: Hollywood studios and record labels want to encrypt their products with an algorithm of some sort, for which every piece of hardware or software that plays or displays their material must have a corresponding electronic key. [If the algorithm or the key is missing, the content won't play -- thus thwarting pirates.] For added protection, the established entertainment companies want Congress to pass a law requiring technology companies to build the key into their products. Thus, no DVD players, PCs, CD players, or operating systems would be legal without Hollywood-designed copyright protection.

The problem is, in their zeal to dictate how hardware and software makers build their equipment, the movie and music moguls would mess with matters that are none of their business, critics say. Embedding copyright-protection mechanisms into new PCs and other digital devices would mean inserting pieces of software code that are hidden, or locked down, and couldn't be altered. That would amount to nothing less than an assault on the open-source religion, which advocates sharing, collaboration, and free access to code.

A crucial feature of the Linux operating system -- the basic software that controls a computer -- is that any part of it can be modified by its users, as long as they agree to make the modification available, for free, to the world at large. Locking down Linux could destroy this dynamic, on which plenty of corporate software developers now depend, and also bar open-source programmers from the $80 billion consumer-electronics market.

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