PUBLIC POLICY, INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY,
AND WHY WE SHOULD CARE
Laws controlling the use of computers and the rights of digital
artists have serious impacts on members of the computer graphics
community, according to Robert Ellis and Barbara Simons,
who organized a course entitled "Introduction
to the Impact of Public Policy on Computer
Graphics." A companion course titled "Intellectual Property,
Copyright, and Digital Rights Management for Computer Graphics"
was also organized by Ellis, Simons and Dan Burk.
The presenters encouraged graphics professionals to become involved
in policy debates to help policymakers understand technology and
its repercussions. Not everyone understands technologies like digital
watermarks, 128-bit encryption, or even clients, servers and packets.
Lawmakers cannot be expected to make reasonable laws when they are
One area of public policy which Simons singled out as lacking in
legislation was personal privacy. Simons noted that we are living
in an age where personal information is collected and disseminated
electronically and currently there is no federal privacy law in
the United States. Meanwhile, Canada has a federal privacy law,
enacted in 2002. One of the participants in the introduction course
pointed out that in New Zealand, citizens have the right to challenge
credit card companies and legally force them to correct inaccurate
personal information. He suggested that U.S. citizens could even
get credit cards from New Zealand banks.
Simons and Ellis raised the question of whether companies should
be held responsible for the safe-keeping of their clients' private
information. Simons questioned the benevolence of the corporate
world and underscored the need for federal privacy legislation:
"I just don't believe that industry is going to police itself."
In order to effectively communicate with policymakers, Ellis recommends
monetary donations, participating in special interest groups, meetings,
phone calls, and letters (no email).
The ACM has created a committee on public policy called USACM,
which is co-chaired by Simons. The USACM has an office in Washington,
D.C., and actively works to influence policymakers on issues relating
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In addition to the issue of privacy, computer graphics professionals
should also be aware of legislation involving intellectual property,
such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), signed in 1998.
The DMCA was ostensibly passed to protect the rights of creators
of digital content, however the presenters argue that it has actually
had the effect of benefiting recording companies and other media
Ellis, Simons and Burk chiefly oppose the DMCA due to its anti-circumvention
provision which criminalizes decryption. The provision is intended
primarily for technology like DVDs which carry an encryption scheme
to prevent piracy. The encryption scheme used by DVDs is a weak
form of encryption called Content Scrambling System (CSS) which
Simons likened to simple puzzles found on the back of cereal boxes.
Simons alluded to people who have broken CSS as "an exercise."
A counter-program called DeCSS was written to circumvent CSS and
allow DVDs to be copied or played on Linux. Since DeCSS is a form
of circumvention, several individuals in the United States and around
the world have found themselves in legal hot water for posting the
code on the Internet. In the eyes of the DMCA, telling other people
how to break encryption is just as bad as actually doing it yourself
and selling copies.
Ellis, Simons and Burk point out that not all forms of decryption
are bad. Decryption techniques are routinely taught in schools to
instruct students on proper cryptography. Simons questioned whether
decoding a jpeg-compressed image or decompiling object code is considered
circumvention under DMCA.
The presenters argued that allowing companies to use sloppy encryption
techniques would lead to an overall weakening of security. Schemes
like CSS were compared to building a fence around a house and putting
a weak lock on the gate, an invitation for disaster.
The conclusion reached by the course presenters was that graphics
practitioners should be active in public policy issues to prevent
the adoption of poorly-crafted laws such as DMCA. According to Burk,
"The DMCA is pretty clearly overkill."
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Electronic Privacy Information Center: www.epic.org
Public record of court case involving DeCSS (includes code):