eTech & Art
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  Reports from SIGGRAPH 2001


by Ben Wyrick
24 July 2002

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 ill-informed.

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 to computing.

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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 publishing companies.

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:
Public record of court case involving DeCSS (includes code):


Electronic Privacy Information Center:


Last Year's Course


Last Year's Panel


Public record of court case involving DeCSS (includes code):



SIGGRAPH is the name of the show. ACM SIGGRAPH is the name of the organization.

Photos from SIGGRAPH 2002


This page is maintained by
Jan Hardenbergh
All photos you see in the 2002 reports are due to a generous loan of Cybershot digital cameras from SONY