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By Jack Ganssle

The DMCA and Us

Published 1/9/03

Experts tell me that the main Internet bandwidth consumer is porn, but perhaps this is changing. Wholesale MP3 downloading seems to be a cottage industry. College kids stress campus networks by sucking movies into their laptops every night. Even the Men of Honor at the Naval Academy were recently busted for their download transgressions.

I think stealing copyrighted material is wrong. But the RIAA and MPAA are also wrong. The digital age changes the rules. We consumers no longer care about CDs. We pay for bit streams, and must have the right to use them as we'd employ any file. Don't give us "one time copy" rights - how can we realistically back up our collections? I can use a CD in my home, the car, or on a beach. Digital equivalents better be at least as portable.

Copyright owners will have to develop a different business model that recognizes the digital age. They're terrified of free alternatives, but it is possible to compete against "free". Somehow Perrier charges a small fortune for. water.

Till the dust settles I appease my conscience by not downloading MP3s and movies. But I have ripped all of my CDs, and do listen to them on the computer. No doubt that infuriates the RIAA, but I did pay for the disks and neither signed nor clicked on a form denying any rights for personal use.

Till recently, though, I've felt the copyright issues are mostly in the Internet domain, and have been a fascinated bystander, watching the various sides develop their ethical and business cases. Yet it seems we embedded developers are the vanguard of the new age of copyright issues. An MP3 player - a quintessentially embedded product - can be used legitimately (at least in my mind; the RIAA may feel differently), or as the destination for 20 GB of flagrant copyright violations. The embedded smarts inside TiVO gives us the same abilities for video, which an army of lawyers wielding plenty of unworkable technologies is determined to stop.

Now an article on cnet (http://news.com.com/2100-1023-979791.html) claims Lexmark is suing Static Control Components for selling a chip that lets companies refill toner cartridges. Huh?

Turns out the cartridges contain an IC that handshakes with the printer, exchanging toner level and other information. That's not too surprising; everything is smart today. Even the batteries in notebook PCs have a processor. What blew me away is that Lexmark apparently uses this chip to prohibit toner refills. Is the printer a loss leader, profits being made on sales of cartridges? Lexmark complains that the scofflaw chip mimics the authentication sequence used by Lexmark's chips. Seems like a dumb complaint to me - we computer folks call that emulation, a standard tool we've used for decades.

But section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act makes such emulation illegal. I quote (and sure hope that laws are not copyrighted!): "No person shall circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under this title."

If you build anything that interfaces to copyrighted material in any manner, Congress thinks the DMCA is your primary requirements document. And if Lexmark can copyright a dreary authentication protocol, what won't be protected by this brain-dead law?