DeCSS and (My) Radicalization

Philosophy Club Poster

I made this poster for a meeting of the Philosophy Club at Wilton High School. Admittedly, my definition of "philosophy" was pretty loose and this poster's point was pretty incoherent (apologies to MLK), but I had found myself talking about the 2600 DeCSS case Universal v. Reimerdes so much with my friends, that I figured it might be good to found a club where we could keep similar conversations going. Since our school didn't have a debate club at the time (there were rumors about an ill-fated trip involving a school bus sinking in the Norwalk River), we didn't really have any other venues to do this besides study hall.

Luckily, my father happened to be a working philosophy of science professor and had enough spare time to help us get the club off the ground. I think I organized the first session and ranted about the DeCSS case, but we later moved onto more academic subjects and discussions. The club was a high point in what was mostly a difficult period in my life and school. I think I still have some photos that we intended to submit to the yearbook and if those turn up I'll try and post them. Unfortunately the club never survived after our class's graduation as we were unable to find a faculty adviser or enough student interest. I would later use the skills I developed to launch Free Culture @ NYU, so I suppose I was on the right track.

The polemical writings of Emannuel Goldstein, editor in chief of 2600 and the main defendant in the case, about the magazine's choice to publish DeCSS had galvanized me. Goldstein articulated that the issues at hand in the suit were really ones of freedom, source code, and speech, not piracy and profits. As an early adopter of Linux (Slackware 3.3 anyone?) as well as a kid who loved movies and was incredibly excited about the potential of DVDs, the practicalities of the case were quite clear to me: why shouldn't I be able to run whatever software I wanted to play my own DVDs? Who says I can't read *that* source code? Jon Johansen, the teenager hacker who cracked the DVD encryption scheme, CSS (not to be confused with the other CSS), played the role of sympathetic hacker who I, not incidentally, looked up to.

Free speech on the internet, heck, freedom itself, appeared to be at stake, threatened by a very bad part of a very new law that sounded like it was bought and paid for by the exact interests suing our magazine.

During the case's 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals trial in May of 2001, I wore a t-shirt featuring the censored source code while sitting in the audience. The Wall Street Journal interviewed me that day and it wasn't until last year that I discovered my quote actually made it into the article in the paper:

Looking back, I now realize my interest and involvement in this case marks my early foray into the world of radical online free speech activism and copyright reform. I knew the 2600 case was important (clearly, I spent a disproportionate amount of time thinking about it, debating it, and following it closely), but I did not estimate how much these issues would continue to shape and influence my life and career. I've now been involved in this community for almost a decade, and it's only beginning to get really interesting.

Obviously, I was not alone. This case and these issues not only radicalized a generation of free software developers and enthusiasts, but also trained them with a set of skills necessary to successfully navigate these issues in the future.

My friend and now colleague at NYU, Gabriella Coleman has written an article about our story called "Code is Speech: Legal Tinkering, Expertise, and Protest among Free and Open Source Software Developers"  published in the academic journal Cultural Anthropology. Biella's paper is one of the best overviews of the conditions that precipitated the birth of a generation of internet and free speech activists. Biella concludes by arguing this type of political activism and legal autodidacticism represents a new kind of engagement with democracy, which of course, I completely agree with and am proud to be part of.

Download the PDF of her paper here, or look for it in your copy of Cultural Anthropology.

3 comments

  1. Don Marti

    I hate to break it to you, but you're not the radical here.

    Extremist expansion of copyright, and the growth of meta-copyright ideas such as anticircumvention, is the radical idea. If you really explain it to most people, they don't like it any more than mandatory quartering of soldiers in private homes in time of peace. The anti-DMCA side, which grows out of a long tradition of copyright as balance, is the conservative side.

  2. leesean

    I agree with Don Marti. Those in favor of anticircumvention and over-extension of IP "rights" are the true radicals.

    Replace "radicalize a generation of free software developers and enthusiasts" with something like "galvanized the political consciousness of..." They connected the dots: Speech is political. Code is speech. Thus code is political.

  3. Pingback: Interprete » 1998 and the Irish Accent is Why I study F/OSS

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