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[FYI] Free Speech Rights for Computer Code?


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July 31, 2000  

Free Speech Rights for Computer Code?  

Suit Tests Power of Media Concerns To Control Access to Digital 


t was perhaps the most arcane statement in all the hours of acronym-
filled testimony, one that came on the last day of the six-day trial. 
But it may have been a turning point in an important battle over the 
limits of a new copyright law, a potential landmark case that ended 
its trial phase last week in Manhattan and now awaits a verdict by 
the judge.  

More news coverage may have been devoted to the recent legal 
wranglings over Napster, the Web service that the recording industry 
has accused of abetting widespread music piracy. But the Manhattan 
case, involving the copying of DVD movie disks, may have more far-
reaching effects -- both on the way cultural products are consumed 
and on whether computer code is deemed to be speech deserving of 
First Amendment protection.  

>From the witness stand last Tuesday, Prof. David S. Touretzky, a 
computer scientist at Carnegie-Mellon University, paged through a 
series of exhibits that included lines of software source code in the 
C computer language, an English-language description of the code, 
long strings of ones and zeros known as object code and a picture of 
a T-shirt with the object code printed on it.  

All of the exhibits pertained to the subject of the trial: a software 
program that enables a user to decode the scrambling technology meant 
to prevent DVD movie disks from unauthorized copying. Professor 
Touretzky, an expert witness for the defense, told the judge that if 
he saw fit to ban any one depiction of the DVD-unscrambling software 
he would have to ban them all, because they all communicate the same 

"I see this as having a chilling effect on my ability as a computer 
scientist to express myself," Professor Touretzky said. He was 
referring to the court's preliminary injunction that barred a Web 
site from posting the underlying, or source, code for the cracking 
program. "If the court upholds this injunction, what would happen is 
that certain uses of computer language -- my preferred means of 
expression -- would be illegal."  


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