In the other corner, we have an immense, if somewhat dim-witted and lumbering giant called 'We the People'. Incredibly powerful, in the end, it usually wins the fight, even as it absorbs KO's in every round. Or so at least goes the popular mythology as taught in American schools.
The struggle between large corporations and the common man is an old one, and many have fought in the ring: cigar rollers unions, Standard Oil, Luddites, Saboteurs, Robber Barons, Marxists and Leninists. The battles have shaped the world we live in. To this day, they continue, even as belief in the virtues of unbridled capitalism struggles to take hold in Europe, Asia and Africa. Even in the US, the WTO riots point to a spiritual theme that rejects consumerist mass culture.
I remember the considerable shock and amazement I felt when I first learned that there are certain electronic circuits that are illegal to create. As a teen, I fiddled with electronic circuits endlessly, and it never occurred to me that some of these might be illegal. If you'd asked me at the time, I would have said that its like making certain thoughts illegal: raised in America, this notion was absurd. The shock of discovering that some electronics are illegal helped radicalize me. I was raised in Chicago as the child of Lithuanian emigrees, and was imbued in the culture of Communist Eastern Europe, the evils of the Soviet System. As a result, the preciousness of personal intellectual rights is perhaps more apparent to me than to many. In particular, it seems that those who have most benefited from such rights are the least attuned to them: they can take such rights for granted.
The illegal electronic circuits are variously called 'blue boxes', 'red boxes', 'black boxes'. They are very simple electronic circuits that could hijack telephone switches of the 1970's, and allow the user to get free long distance or do other interesting things. Of course the telephone companies didn't like this one bit, and they worked with their congressmen and representatives to pass laws that made possession of such devices highly illegal, with prison sentences comparable to those for murder. Murder? It was unimaginable. To me, drawing an electronic blueprint is like talking: its a natural form of communication, a means by which one expresses the ideas in ones head. I'd been doing electronics since before kindergarten, I was learning its nuances even as I learned English. To discover one day that certain expressions in my Mother Tongue are illegal because Ma Bell helped make it so was stunning, astounding, flabbergasting, jaw-dropping, apoplectizing. A wake up call, a call to arms.
In some ways, one might argue that I shouldn't be surprised: owning dynamite, at least without a permit, is illegal. I can understand this: dynamite can hurt other humans. Operating a motor vehicle requires a permit: drivers can injure pedestrians. Possession of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons can introduce you to people who throw away the keys. Understandable.
But owning an electronic circuit that maybe hurts corporations? Something that doesn't actually kill anyone, but that possibly causes economic damage, if enough people used it? And that economic damage being rather abstract and arguable? Its not like any profits would have needed to be restated in the annual report or anything. It most certainly is not the case that any other human being actually suffered pain as a result of thier use, a missed promotion, a pay cut or anything.
In the DeCSS battle, we have a very similar situation. Large corporations employed some truly brilliant and visionary lawyers and executives who worked with elected officials to craft into law similar restriction long before any common slashdot reader got a clue of what was going on; viz. a section of the copyright law that provides that no person shall offer "any technology, product, service, device, component or part thereof [that is] produced for the purpose of circumventing a technological measure that effectively controls access to" a copyrighted work. [Digital Millennium Copyright Act]
In other words, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is abridging individual rights not just on a few electronic devices, but something far broader. By using DeCSS, I cause no direct or indirect damage to any individual or corporation. I cause no economic damage either. Thousands or millions of users could use DeCSS without in any way hurting anyone or anything. Yet, my rights to express certain thoughts are being challenged because the media industry fears a few intellectual property pirates. I am not a criminal, and I'll be damned if the DMCA turns me, and millions of others, into one.
The above is a rhyme from an earlier century (see What's Wrong With the World, by G.K. Chesterton (1910)) that captures the situation when organizational power is directed against individuals.
In the name of detering intellectual property theft, the DMCA outlaws the creation of certain types of intellectual property: viz, the mechanisms that might be used to circumvent copy protection. But this is a terrible tradeoff: some beans for a cow. The moral right, the ethical freedom to think any thought I wish, to discuss any topic I wish is far, far more valuable than some MP3 or DVD could ever be. This fundamental freedom is more valuable than all the DVD's and MP3's put together. And yet, a few greedy bums are willing to trade this for a few measly bucks.