What is DeCSS?

Jan 02nd, 2010 by dvdxplayer 2,987 views |Comments Off

CSS (Content Scrambling System) is an encryption and authentication scheme intended to prevent DVD movies from being digitally copied. DeCSS refers to the general process of defeating CSS, as well as to DeCSS source code and programs.

Computer software to decrypt CSS was released to the Internet in October 1999 (see Dana Parker’s article at www.emediapro.net/news99/news111.html), although other “ripping” methods were available before that. The difference between circumventing CSS encryption with DeCSS and intercepting decrypted, decompressed video with a DVD ripper is that DeCSS can be considered illegal under the DMCA and the WIPO treaties. The DeCSS information can be used to “guess” at master keys, such that a standard PC can generate the entire list of 409 keys, rendering the key secrecy process useless.

In any case, there’s not much appeal to being able to copy a set of movie files (often without menus and other DVD special features) that would take over a week to download on a 56K modem and would fill up a 6G hard disk or a dozen CD-Rs. An alternative is to recompress the video with a different encoding format such as DivX so that it will take less space, but this often results in significantly reduced picture quality. In spite of lower data rates of DivX et al, the time and effort it takes to find and download the files is not worth the bother for most movie viewers. The reality is that most people ripping and downloading DVDs are doing it for the challenge, not to avoid buying discs.

The supporters of DeCSS point out that it was only developed to allow DVD movies to be played on the Linux operating system, which had been excluded from CSS licensing because of its open-source nature. This is specifically allowed by DMCA and WIPO laws. However, the DeCSS.exe program posted on the Internet is a Windows application that decrypts movie files. The lack of differentiation between the DeCSS process in Linux and the DeCSS.exe Windows application is hurting the cause of DeCSS backers, since DeCSS.exe can be used in the process of copying and illegally distributing movies from DVD. See Tom Vogt’s DeCSS central for more information on DeCSS.

Worthy of note is that DVD piracy was around long before DeCSS. Serious DVD pirates can copy the disc bit for bit, including the normally unreadable lead in (this can be done with a specially modified drive), or copy the video output from a standard DVD player, or get a copy of the video from another source such as laserdisc, VHS, or a camcorder smuggled into a theater. It’s certainly true that DVD piracy is a problem, but DeCSS has little to do with it.

Shortly after the appearance of DeCSS, the DVD CCA filed a lawsuit and requested a temporary injunction in an attempt to prevent Web sites from posting (or even linking to!) DeCSS information. The request was denied by a California court on December 29, 1999. On January 14, 2000, the seven top U.S. movie studios (Disney, MGM, Paramount, Sony [Columbia/TriStar], Time Warner, Twentieth Century Fox, and Universal), backed by the MPAA, filed lawsuits in Connecticut and New York in a further attempt to stop the distribution of DeCSS on Web sites in those states. On January 21, the judge for the New York suit granted a preliminary injunction, and on January 24, the judge for the CCA suit in California reversed his earlier decision and likewise granted a preliminary injunction. In both cases, the judges ruled that the injunction applied only to sites with DeCSS information, not to linking sites. (Good thing, since this FAQ links to DeCSS sites!) The CCA suit is based on misappropriation of trade secrets (somewhat shaky ground), while the MPAA suits are based on copyright circumvention. On January 24, 16-year old Jon Johansen, the Norwegian programmer who first distributed DeCSS, was questioned by local police who raided his house and confiscated his computer equipment and cell phone. Johansen says the actual cracking work was done by two anonymous programmers, one German and one Dutch, who call themselves Masters of Reverse Engineering (MoRE).

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