Coalition sues to block distribution of DVD "cracking" tool

A coalition of motion picture and high-tech heavyweights sues 71 individuals and Web sites for allegedly circulating a program online that lets people crack the security on DVDs to make unauthorized copies.

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A coalition of motion picture and high-tech heavyweights has sued 71 individuals and Web sites for allegedly circulating a program online that lets people crack the security on digital movie discs.

The lawsuit was filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court in California yesterday by the DVD Copy Control Association. The group was formed in December of last year by companies that also are members of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Business Software Alliance and the Electronic Industries Alliance to license out the DVD Content Scrambling System--a technology used by all major U.S. movie studios to prevent the piracy of DVD versions of hundreds of copyrighted works.

DVD sellers and content providers were rocked in November, however, when programmers discovered a way to remove the anti-copying features through a program called DeCSS.

Defendants in the suit say the DeCSS program is intended to make DVD movies compatible with Linux, not to create pirated copies of movies.

"The goal...was not to give piraters the ability to copy DVDs; it was simply to play DVDs under Linux, an operating system the film industry forgot in their efforts to accelerate the proliferation of DVDs in the market," wrote defendant John-Victor Kew II in a message on his Web site.

Defendants and their supporters, including cyber rights advocate the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), noted the DeCSS program was created using legal Reverse-engineering techniques and called efforts to make the program unavailable an attack on free speech.

"It is EFF's opinion that this lawsuit is an attempt to architect law to favor a particular business model at the expense of free expression," the group wrote. "It is an affront to the First Amendment (and U.N. human rights accords) because the information the programmers posted is legal."

In addition, EFF blasted efforts by the DVD CCA to name defendants who merely posted links to other sites with the program.

From the start, the film industry has sought to characterize DeCSS as an attack on its lifeblood.

As DVD players have been one of the hottest-selling items this holiday season, the industries have been in a frenzy to stamp out DeCSS by sending threatening legal letters, for example. The lawsuit filed today is the most serious action yet.

The lawsuit names individuals who registered Web sites from California, New York, Australia, Denmark and other areas, as well as dozens of "John Does," charging that they are facilitating the illegal copying of DVDs by posting the DeCSS program on their sites or "knowingly" linking to it.

"Their unchecked illegal activities will chill future technological innovation in the motion picture, consumer electronics and computer industries and discourage other industries from making their content available to the public, as the motion picture industry has done here, in new formats," the DVD Copy Control Association alleges in the complaint.

The plaintiffs are seeking an injunction to stop the sites from providing access to DeCSS, which the lawsuit alleges relies on proprietary information extracted from the DVD Content Scrambling System. Based on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which passed last October, it is a crime to create, sell or distribute technology that could be used to break copyright-protection devices.

"Working together with the MPAA, [the] DVD Copy Control Association sought to have these postings removed from the various Web sites, and some Web site operators and Internet service providers voluntarily removed the material in response to these requests," the association said in a statement. "An injunction would ensure that CSS technology remains in place as an essential part of the development of the DVD marketplace."

For now, the association is not going after people who actually use DeCSS to make illegal copies of DVDs. That is because the provision in the DMCA that made it a crime to "circumvent" copyright-protection devices, with violators being charged up to $2,500 per act of circumvention, hasn't gone into effect yet. The provision created exemptions for research, engineering and education that still have to be worked out by an interagency rule-making group.

The motion picture industry isn't the only entertainment Goliath trying to shut down programs that could lead to the piracy of copyrighted material. Earlier this month, the Recording Industry Association of America sued software start-up Napster, claiming that its program has created a forum that lets online users trade unauthorized music files directly from their PCs.

News.com's Evan Hansen contributed to this report.