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    of the American Society for Information Science and Technology         Vol. 31, No. 5        June/July 2005

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Chasing Down the Social Meaning of DeCSS: Investigating the Internet Posting of DVD Circumvention Software

by Kristin R. Eschenfelder

Kristin Eschenfelder is an assistant professor in the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She can be reached by email at eschenfelder@facstaff.wisc.edu.

This article provides one example of social informatics research, highlighting how the social contexts of information and communications technologies (ICTs) shape their ongoing use. As explained by other authors in this section, social informatics researchers view ICTs as embedded in complex and diffuse webs of technology, institutions and people. Further, they posit that in order to understand phenomenon related to the development, use and ongoing reconfiguration of ICTs, one must analyze the social context in which development, use and ongoing reconfiguration occur. A social informatics perspective builds on the premise that any ICTs uses are situated. This situational factor means that responses to questions of how an ICT is used (or not used) and why an ICT is used (or not used) will vary in part due to the variations in the social contexts of use. A social informatics perspective thus assumes that people will likely come to use similar ICTs in diverse and unexpected ways due to variances in the social context.

While this assumption sounds reasonable, one difficulty that social informatics scholars have is defining what social context means. If we assume that social context entails a tremendous number of potential factors of explanatory interest, identifying and operationalizing those factors most useful to the project at hand can be daunting. And, unlike other areas of research that revolve around a few core theories and their variants, social informatics researchers draw on a wide variety of theoretical frames to provide structure to their investigation of social context and its complex relationship with ICT use. These frames include actor network theory, social network approaches, structuration theory and its variants, and institutional theory. These different theoretical frames tend to emphasize different social context factors and facilitate different types of explanations. So part of the trick of doing social informatics work is finding the theoretical framework that most helps describe and explain the significance of those contextual factors you have determined are most important to your explanatory goals.

An example of social informatics empirical research that emphasizes one aspect of social context – the meaning of ICT for various groups and variation in meaning across groups – is a project that we carried out at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Communication Technology Research Cluster www.journalism.wisc.edu/ctrc/. Our research draws on both institutional theory and a related set of theories known as collective action theory. One branch of institutional theory suggests that in order to fully explain the actions of social actors, researchers must examine the norms, beliefs or other cognitive frameworks through which the social actor develops meaning, paying special attention to how symbols shape the meanings that social actors attribute to phenomenon and how the values carried by symbols may drive action or attitudes. So the set of social context factors emphasized by this aspect of institutional theory is the role that symbols (broadly defined) play in shaping meaning and action.

Collective action theory is a more narrowly bounded theory that focuses on how individuals develop and sustain collaborative contentious action against power holders. Thus, this theory emphasizes the role of mobilizing structures such as group affiliation or social networks in generating and sustaining participation in collective action. This theory also highlights the importance of collective action symbols such as icons, language or dress in producing consensus, developing shared meaning, mobilizing protest participants and – in conjunction with other symbols and slogans – communicating a uniform message designed to appeal to current cultural values while portraying a target situation as unjust or intolerable.

The Case of DeCSS

In using this theoretical framework, our investigation of social context emphasized the symbolic meanings associated with ICTs. We sought to explain why certain website authors come to post a software tool known as “DeCSS” on Internet websites while others do not. DeCSS is a software program that breaks the software-based protection system on commercial DVDs known as CSS (not to be confused with cascading style sheets). Cracking CSS with DeCSS allows users to do a number of things, including play DVDs on computers using free/open source (F/OS) operating systems, skip commercials on the DVDs and circumvent region coding that disallows use of some foreign bought DVDs. It also allows users to make copies of those DVDs. In our analysis we explain observed variance in the Internet posting of DeCSS in terms of variance of the symbolic meaning of DeCSS for different groups.

The DeCSS software has several attributes important to understanding its symbolic value. First, some claim that DeCSS was created to allow users of computers running F/OS operating systems to play DVDs without resorting to the use of a commercial operating system. Second, DeCSS quickly became obsolete as a player for DVDs on computers running F/OS operating systems when better tools became available. Therefore, as a tool to play DVDs on F/OS computers, DeCSS was quickly eclipsed by newer programs – although these newer tools arguably draw on lessons provided by DeCSS. Third, posting DeCSS is arguably prohibited in the United States and numerous other nations. Website authors posting DeCSS risk legal action by information provider (IP) interest groups, and several website authors posting DeCSS in the United States have been subject to legal action under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Similar laws have been or are in the process of being promulgated in most nations around the globe.

Given the obsolescence of the software and the legal risks associated with posting it, one might expect that DeCSS would be difficult to find. Perhaps DeCSS would only be available through anonymous peer-to-peer (P2P) sources or via password protected websites for those seeking to collect interesting cracking tools or historic versions of F/OS DVD players. But in fact we find that DeCSS has been consistently available on the Internet since 1999 and that many who post DeCSS clearly identify themselves by name.

One might also assume that DeCSS posting would be heavily associated with piracy or cracking – that only people seeking to promote illegal DVD copying or general social disorder would post DeCSS. Yet we found numerous examples of DeCSS posting websites where the website authors specifically denied any desire to promote piracy or social disorder, and we found some DeCSS posting sites where the author specifically requested that people downloading the software use it only for “legal” purposes.

Why does this (albeit small) group of website authors ignore obsolescence and risk legal action to publicly post DeCSS and in some cases identify themselves as the poster? We posit that their actions are motivated by the symbolic value, rather than the functional value, of the DeCSS software program within some social groups. We argue that the continued posting of DeCSS has little to do with its primary functionality as a software tool either as a DVD player for lawfully purchased DVDs or as a tool to copy DVDs without the copyright owners’ permission. Rather, the value of DeCSS stems from its value as a symbol in larger social and political debates about the changing relationship between consumers and the digital materials they purchase.

A short history helps provide the context. In October 1999 Jon Johansen and others authored the DeCSS program, and it was available on the Internet soon after. One website to post it was www.2600.com, which was run, in part, by Eric Corley. Immediately movie studios sent out cease-and-desist orders telling websites to remove DeCSS and all links to DeCSS on secondary sites (many sites posted mirror lists). By January 2000 a number of movie studios had brought a formal suit against Corley and others both for posting DeCSS and for linking to DeCSS on secondary sites under the United States Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Movie studios also engaged in a public relations offensive, portraying DeCSS as an illegitimate piracy tool and DeCSS posters as pirates.

The court case, which ran roughly from January 2000 to May 2002, evoked immediate and strong reaction, including the generation of more websites posting DeCSS or containing mirror lists of DeCSS locations. In fact, DeCSS became a sort of cause celčbre among the technorati, especially those in the F/OS community. For example, we found that in January 2001, one year after the start of the legal proceedings, at least 27 English language websites posted DeCSS. Note that these website authors faced threat of prosecution in the United States for posting DeCSS, and the movie studios had shown they were willing to prosecute DeCSS posters. Further, by that time, numerous other F/OS DVD players were available, making DeCSS largely technically obsolete.

It is not surprising that the legal proceedings might inspire some individuals to post DeCSS out of sympathy for the prosecuted or post DeCSS to express anti-authoritarian or anti-corporate sentiments. What is surprising is that more than two years later, well after the end of the legal proceedings, individuals continue to post DeCSS – both in the United States and in many other nations. Data collected in spring 2004 comparing the EU and China show that DeCSS is still posted by individuals in many nations, and that some nations ( Netherlands , Germany , France , United Kingdom ) contain many DeCSS posting websites.

The Symbolic Meaning of DeCSS

We argue that DeCSS has at least two important symbolic values for DeCSS posters. First, DeCSS posting acts as rhetorical shorthand. In posting DeCSS, authors engage in and contribute to one of the larger public debates about the changing relationship between consumers and intellectual property. Those debates include arguments that digital rights management tools like CSS block fair use of protected material, that the exemptions for legal circumvention for reverse engineering purposes are too narrow and exclude a variety of previously protected or useful activities, and that circumvention prohibitions will stifle professional and scientific communications about tools related to digital rights management  (DRM), such as encryption and watermarking – and that this chilling of speech will result in a decrease in innovation within the software industry. Other critics argue that DRM allows IP interests to engage in a variety of unfair trade practices and anti-consumer behaviors by giving them undue power over device player manufacturers and by supporting geographical price and release-date discrimination.

The second symbolic value of DeCSS is as a group signifier. We argue that some might post DeCSS as a means of claiming group membership. From a collective action perspective, symbols like dress or slogans are used, among other things, to mobilize and recruit group members. If certain groups adopt certain symbols as important, those seeking to belong to that group might also adopt that symbol.

We argue that DeCSS holds special significance for the F/OS software community. We suggest that people seeking to claim or exhibit group membership within the F/OS community might be more inclined to post DeCSS as part of a claim to group membership. Of course, not all F/OS users feel compelled to express membership in the community by posting DeCSS. However our data includes evidence supporting a link between DeCSS posting and F/OS affiliation from websites in the United States and some European Union nations.

Examining the role of DeCSS as a symbol provides several insights on why people continue to post DeCSS despite its legal prohibition and technical obsolescence. First, this view illustrates that people continue to post DeCSS because DeCSS is shorthand for certain arguments in larger debates about the relationship between consumers and the digital works they purchase. Because the debates surrounding these issues will continue for some time, it is likely that some people will continue to post DeCSS for some time. Second, a symbolic view suggests that individuals may continue to post DeCSS in order to make affiliation claims with groups whose other members use DeCSS as a symbol.

DeCSS in Use

We also argue that DeCSS does not have the same symbolic value everywhere. Recall that social informatics emphasizes that an ICT’s uses will likely vary across different contexts. Indeed, we found variation in the frequency of DeCSS posting across nations, variation in the context in which DeCSS was presented on websites and variation in the association between DeCSS and F/OS affiliation. For instance, we observed that some nations ( Netherlands , Germany , United Kingdom , France and the United States ) contain more examples of DeCSS posting than other nations ( Italy , Spain , Ireland and the People’s Republic of China ). Differences in laws did not provide a good explanation for the observed variance.

We also observed differences in the context created by website authors for DeCSS. For example, authors in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) presented DeCSS as an audio-visual tool or as a cracking tool. DeCSS was placed on pages or within categories of software with names like “DVD Rippers,” “DeCoding,” “Most Used DeCoding Software” and “Popular Cracking Utilities.” In contrast, most EU authors presented DeCSS in a more political context or without any clear context. DeCSS pages had titles like “Linux DVD,” “DeCSS Mirror List,” “DeCSS Central” and “You Have One Bat, and there are 100 Million Holes.” Or, DeCSS was presented by itself on a Web page with no accompanying contextual information.

Finally, we saw variance in treatment of DeCSS among F/OS developers. We had expected to see high DeCSS posting in nations with large F/OS developer communities. We had expected that the F/OS movement would act as a carrier to educate developers about the issues surrounding DeCSS and to encourage developers to post DeCSS. But we found that some nations with high numbers of F/OS developers, such as Italy and Spain , did not show many examples of DeCSS posting. These findings suggest that DeCSS does not carry the same symbolic value even within one (albeit large and diverse) social group – F/OS developers.

We draw several conclusions about the symbolic meaning of DeCSS from this observed variation. First, DeCSS posting can be better understood if one views DeCSS as a symbol laden with meaning rather than as an algorithm or a software tool. But while DeCSS is sometimes used as shorthand for arguments about the changing relationship between owners of digital media and intellectual property owners, DeCSS does not stand as a symbol for those arguments everywhere. In some places it has more value as an example of an audio-visual tool or as an example of a cracking tool. In other places, it seems to have no evident symbolic value, as no one posts it.

Second, while DeCSS posting seems to be used as a symbol indicating F/OS group affiliation in many websites in the United States and certain nations in northern Europe , DeCSS does not have this same value everywhere. Our data suggest that F/OS developers in Italy and Spain do not post DeCSS because, despite healthy numbers of F/OS developers within these nations, the data from those nations contain few DeCSS postings. Using social informatics facilitates these types of insights.

For Further Reading

Eschenfelder, K.R., Desai, A.C., Alderman, I. , Sin, J., & Shen Yi (In press). The limits of DVD copyright circumvention protest: A comparison of Internet posting of DVD circumvention devices in the European Union, The People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong and Macau . Journal of Information Science.

 Eschenfelder, K.R., Howard, R.G., & Desai, A.C. (In press). Who posts DeCSS and why? A content analysis of websites posting DVD circumvention software. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology.

Eschenfelder, K.R., & Desai, A.C. (2004). Software as protest: The unexpected resiliency of U.S. based DeCSS posting and linking. The Information Society 20(2), 101-115.

McAdam, D., Tarrow, S., & Tilly, C. (2001). Dynamics of contention. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

Scott, W. R. (2001). Institutions and organizations. Thousand Oaks , CA : Sage.


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