eTech & Art & More

Report on Course: The Impact of Public Policy on Computer Graphics

Lecturers: Robert Ellis and Barbara Simons

By Ben Wyrick


It used to be hard to copy things. During the Dark Ages, Monks laboriously duplicated texts word for word, by hand. Back then there was little need for licensing intellectual property. Today, thanks to digital technology, copying material is much easier, and as a consequence we have copyrights, licenses, scrambled signals, cryptography, public policy laws, and lawyers. 

A course titled "The Impact of Public Policy on Computer Graphics," delivered by Robert Ellis and Barbara Simons delved into the issues surrounding intellectual property and the consumer's right to exercise control over software and media he or she has purchased. Ellis is the SIGGRAPH Public Policy Program Chair, and Simons is ACM Past President and U.S. Public Policy Committee Co-Chair.

It is well known that creators have rights. Musicians, artists, software developers, and other creators have certain rights over their work. Among other things, a copyright prevents unlawful duplication of the holder's work. But copyrights, unlike diamonds, are not forever.

The Constitution provides for a limited term on copyrighted material. Once a copyright runs out, the photograph, book, or other media enters the public domain. According to Ellis and Simons, manufacturers of DVDs and other permanently encrypted media have forgotten about the limited nature of a copyright.

It is important to remember that consumers also have rights. The purchaser of a music CD or software package has certain limited rights to the use of that product. The right of "first sale" allows the consumer to give away media he or she has purchased. 

Perhaps more important than first sale is the right of "fair use." Fair use endows the consumer with several rights, including the right to publish a software review and the right to distribute copies in a classroom setting for teaching and research purposes.

New public policy legislation abridges the rights of first sale and fair use. Legislation like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and the Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act (UCITA) place unfair restrictions on consumers according to Ellis and Simons. The presenters also note that the United States has some of the strictest laws regarding intellectual property and that other countries are being pressured by the U.S. to adhere to those laws.

DVDs are a good example of how basic consumer rights have been abridged. Due to the Content Scrambling System (CSS) encryption on DVDs, someone who owns one cannot make a copy for his or her private use. Anyone who attempts to circumvent the encryption is in violation of the DMCA and thus a lawbreaker. Another example: a professor teaching a class on cryptography instructs students on reverse engineering, a common occurrence in computer science classes across the country. Under DMCA this action is highly questionable.

The DMCA was signed into law by President Clinton in 1998. The ACM opposes the anti-circumvention provisions of the law, claiming they criminalize legitimate research and impede progress. For example, how does one prove an encryption scheme weak? Hack it. How does one make it stronger? Bolster the scheme based on the knowledge gained from the hack. That's illegal now.

UCITA has only been adopted by Virginia and Maryland. Each state has adopted its own version of the law and so UCITA is uniform in name only. In fact, Iowa has passed an anti-UCITA bill.

According to the ACM, UCITA will encourage sloppy work from software companies because it absolves them from product defect liability--even if the manufacturer had prior knowledge of the defect. It prohibits reverse engineering which is one of the ways defective software is fixed. UCITA forbids the publication of benchmarks, which denies consumers valuable information regarding a software product.

Consumers bound by UCITA provisions are forced to accept the non-negotiable terms hidden inside "shrink-wrap" licenses. Under UCITA, it is conceivable that a user found in violation of the license would be subject to a remote inactivation of the software, carried out through the user's Internet connection. For these reasons, UCITA has been facetiously pronounced "You-Cheat-A."

Somewhere along the line, someone got tired of not being able to copy purchased DVDs. Or perhaps that anonymous someone was just looking for the intellectual challenge of breaking the Content Scrambling System (CSS) which protects DVDs from being duplicated. In January of 2000, code for breaking CSS was published on the Internet, mostly by anonymous individuals. The code, called DeCSS, spread throughout the Internet and prompted officials to act. 

Jon Johansen, a 16-year-old Norwegian, was arrested on Jan. 25, 2000, for posting DeCSS on his website. A legal battle ensued and separate court cases were brought against others, such as Eric Corley, publisher of the hacker netzine, which published DeCSS on their site and later, links to sites with DeCSS code. Reactions against CSS, DMCA, and UCITA have prompted a rash of civil disobedience among the electronic community.

In addition to Johansen and Corley, two other names come up when the subject of circumvention is mentioned: Dmitry Sklyarov and Edward Felten.

Sklyarov, a lead programmer for a Russian software company, was arrested in July for publishing a hack to Adobe's eBook encryption. Sklyarov's company, Elcom, manufacturers a $100 eBook decoder which makes it possible to copy eBooks and also extends their usability. Sklyarov was in the United States for the annual Defcon hacker convention, where he gave a talk on eBook security. Currently released on bond, Sklyarov is the first person to be prosecuted under the criminal provisions of DMCA. Several civil cases have been levied, most notably that of Edward Felten.

Princeton professor Edward Felten led a research team in a contest to circumvent a digital watermarking scheme created by Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI), the security arm of the music recording industry. Felten's team was successful and prepared to publish its findings at the International Information Hiding Workshop Conference in April. Prior to the conference Felten received a letter from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and SDMI which threatened a lawsuit if the paper was published. At the last moment Felten bowed out and did not present his team's paper at the conference. In June the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an electronic age free speech advocacy group, asked a federal court to allow Felten to present his paper at a different conference, the USENIX Security Conference, on Aug. 15.

Computer scientists like Felten routinely study security issues and present their findings at conferences. DMCA threatens to curtail the types of research which can be presented at professional conferences. Could an ACM presenter be taken to court for publishing a paper on reverse engineering? International scientists have informed the ACM that they won't come to America while DMCA is still in place (Sklyarov's bail prohibits him from returning home to Russia). Hence the ACM's position that anti-circumvention provisions threaten security, academic research, and fair use.

According to the Constitution, the core purpose of copyright is to "promote the progress of science and useful arts." Does legislation like DMCA violate the intent of copyright? Ellis and Simons argue that progress is not being made when papers are blocked and computer scientists are not allowed to research circumvention methods. 

A last thought worth considering: the ACM has argued that code is an expressive language and thus falls under First Amendment protection. 

Ellis and Simons gave several guidelines for individuals interested in joining the fight against DMCA and UCITA. It was mentioned that policymakers are influenced by contributions and hardcopy letters (not email) from constituents. Letters to the editor are most effective when submitted in response to a story previously covered by the paper. Several links to anti-DMCA organizations are included at the end of this story.

As a reporter covering issues like DeCSS, is it legal under DMCA for me to provide readers with resources which might allow encryption circumvention? 

ACM U.S. Policy Committee:

Electronic Frontier Foundation:

Recording Industry Association of America:

Americans for Fair Electronic Commerce Transactions:

UCITA On-Line: netzine:

For more information see the S2001 site:



Felten Update
On the Wednesday night of SIGGRAPH 2001, Professor Felton finally presented his paper on SDMI's encryption at the USENIX Security Symposium in Washington, D.C. According to a story published by netzine, Felten spoke in front of a capacity crowd at the conference. It was feared that his speech would be preempted by authorities acting on behalf of the RIAA or SDMI, however both
organizations now deny threatening Felten. The complete paper is available online at

Edward Felton's Homepage


This page is maintained by YON - Jan C. Hardenbergh All photos you see in the 2001 reports are due to a generous loan of Cybershot digital cameras from SONY