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Business Hi-Tech
The Anti-Copyright Crusader
In these digital days, Russell McORMOND argues for consumers' right to copy
Peter Hum
The Ottawa Citizen
The Ottawa Citizen
Russell McOrmond is an Ottawa activist who is prepared to defy U.S.-style law restricting DVD play on his computer

As acts of defiance go, what Russell McOrmond did was by all appearances mundane -- seemingly no different from what thousands of Canadians do at their home computers.

McOrmond, a 34-year-old Ottawa consultant who specializes in open-source technology, watched a DVD on his computer. Normally that would have been no big deal, except that McOrmond runs a Linux machine, and wanted to play the DVD on an open-source player. Yet under the U.S Digital Millennium Copyright Act (or DMCA), playing DVDs on a open-source player is illegal.

Like most DVDs, the disc that McOrmond bought had been encrypted. The coding is a purported anti-piracy measure, but it also effectively tries to control the DVD-player market, ensuring proprietary, licensed technology is the U.S. legal standard. Linux, with its freely available source code, is decidedly not that kind of technology. McOrmond had to do an end-run around the law, using a Linux-platform DVD player downloaded from abroad with a built-in DVD-encryption cracker.

If McOrmond lived in the U.S., he would have been breaking the law. He has even told Industry Canada, which oversees copyright, of his intended defiance should Canada adopt a similar law. "Am I willing to go to jail for this? Of course I am," he says.

Changes coming

Canada has not criminalized watching DVDs on open-source player -- yet.

However, changes to Canadian copyright laws are coming, and McOrmond fears that parts of the wide-ranging DMCA will creep into new legislation, and that other U.S. measures may also be influential. Industry Canada and Heritage Canada have been holding consultation sessions across Canada regarding copyright, and McOrmond is to speak at an Ottawa consultation April 11.

His appearance there is a natural, given that he is one of Canada's foremost online opponents against restrictive digital copyright legislation. His Web site,, is chock full of his writings and other articles criticizing digital copyright developments and proposals, which he generally regards as a power grab by entertainment giants such as Disney and the Universal Music Group -- greedy groping which will harm consumers and technology at large.

Canadians last month were introduced to a related, proposed measure -- a proposed tax called the Private Copying Tariff which would be levied against manufacturers of blank CDs, memory cards and blank DVDs, who would undoubtedly pass their costs onto consumers. The point of the tax would be to compensate the Canadian Private Copying Collective in advance for digital piracy. The collective would redistribute the money to artists and copyright holders. Given that the U.S. enacted a similar law a decade ago, perhaps it's not so far-fetched to look south to see what Canada might expect.


On the U.S. digital-copyright frontier, there are lots of recent developments and lingering issues:

- Last month, U.S. Sen. Ernest Hollings introduced a bill for the Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Act, which would require computer and electronics companies to embed piracy-protection software in their products. The bill has pitted Hollywood titans such as Disney and 20th Century Fox against tech industry mainstays (and not just open-source advocates). The CEOs of Intel, Microsoft, Motorola and Compaq this year co-signed a letter, expressing their wish to be free of "regulated anti-piracy standards."

- In February, the U.S. Copyright Arbitration Royalty Panel proposed that Internet broadcasters pay royalties of 0.14 cents per song streamed -- a rate which Web radio companies say could put them out of business. The Webcasters had proposed a rate one-tenth as onerous. The Recording Industry and Association of America had asked for an even higher rate. Analysts say that if the proposal passes, it could lead to the end of another free Internet service, leaving Web radio dominated by subscription services and stations run by larger companies.

- Also in February, MGM launched its online movie delivery pilot program, marking the first time a major Hollywood studio has offered feature film downloads on the Internet. The downloads are copy-protected and engineered to be playable for only 24 hours. Still, MGM was said to be anxious to see whether hackers could break the security software.

- Since late last year, major music labels have been releasing copy-protected CDs in North America, bent on frustrating people who burn duplicate or make MP3 files on their home computers. Music companies contend that copiers are responsible for a 10-per-cent drop in sales in 2001. However, copy protection has also rendered some CDs unplayable in DVD players, portable CD players and Macintosh computers. The move has drawn the ire of critics including Roger Ebert, who argues that private copying is not piracy -- it's advertising. "Will they (copiers) eventually be paying customers for the music they are currently sampling? In most cases, yes," Ebert wrote in this month in a Yahoo! Internet Life column. "Technically, they are stealing, but in fact they are an instrumental part of the process by which a lot of real CDs get sold," he wrote.

- The digital video recorder ReplayTV faces civil suits because its technology allows users to e-mail one another programs that they have taped. Hollywood's television and movie studios want to put a stop to this, even if the U.S. National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences awarded ReplayTV an Emmy last fall for contributing to the "advancement of television." (A similar lawsuit forced the April 2000 shutdown of iCraveTV, a Toronto company that re-broadcast U.S. and Canadian TV shows.)

- Napster, the Internet song swapping service that made digital file-sharing a public issue, told a German periodical last week that it will not open a copyright-friendly service for another nine months. After being shut down by the courts last year, Napster was hoping to re-launch this spring after securing licensing deals from major music labels. However, the major record companies launched their own music subscription sites several months ago, Pressplay and MusicNet, in the hopes of exploiting the digital download craze while simultaneously minimizing online music piracy, Reuters reported.

In all these instances, copyright holders have contended that "pirates" have robbed them of revenue. As well, they contend that because their products are intellectual property, they are right to exert control over access to the digital files, sometimes even after they are paid for, in customers' hands.


McOrmond couldn't disagree more. He's never been one to impede the sharing of information, which he distinguishes from unauthorized mass-copying. As a youth growing up in Sudbury, he had as many misgivings about copying and sharing software as others might have had about taping a TV show and sharing the videotape.

A decade ago, after coming to Ottawa and studying computer science and psychology at Carleton University, he began rejecting proprietary software licensing and embracing the free software movement, which extols the sharing of information, as well as new business models that do not rely upon intellectual property.

Now, McOrmond is something of a free-software, anti-copyright ideologue, although he takes his inspiration from the 200-year-old writings of Thomas Jefferson. "If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea," Jefferson wrote.

He agrees strongly that copyright as a moral right -- authors, musicians or creators should always receive attribution for their works, he says. The creators also have economic rights, except that they should not be as extensive as they are now, McOrmond argues.

However, he argues that companies today have gone too far in trying to control access to products through copy-protection and exclusion of open-source alternatives. "Adding that concept to copyright is removing fair use," he says.

Furthermore, McOrmond argues that when copyright law such as the DMCA disallows competing technologies (such as a Linux-platform DVD player), it runs afoul itself of competition law.

It's not difficult to guess which law McOrmond favours. "To me, competition law should supersede copyright law," he says. "One has to be able to trump the other, and I do not believe that copyright should ever be able to trump competition."

In this respect, McOrmond argues that he's taking the free-market high road which encourages innovation and development, while copyright holders are asking for government protectionism and sanctioned cartels.

The Canadian Motion Picture Distributors Association, which includes Disney, MGM, Paramount/Viacom and other major film compnies, last fall made a 12-page submission to the Canadian copyright reform process. Among its many suggestions, the association is asking for "anti-circumvention provisions" to be put in place, which would make watching a DVD on an open-source player illegal in Canada.

It's no wonder that when McOrmond purchased a DVD for his anti-DMCA exercise, it was a copy of the movie Anti-Trust. He laughs at the irony of his choice. "The premise of the movie is that you've got these open-source developers who are writing all this cool software," he says. However, the DVD was encrypted to thwart like-minded techies in the real world. "Even though the movie is talking about this great thing called open source, it's actually illegal to watch the movie on an open-source player," McOrmond says.

Gestures such as defiantly playing the DVD have meaning to McOrmond. Similarly, he gave away his Metallica CDs two years ago after the heavy-metal band sued Napster for copyright infringement.

"Metallica the business, not Metallica the band, sat there talking about all this piracy and evil things that people were doing, like free marketing for Metallica, doing free marketing is evil, fans are evil, people who actually enjoy the music, well, they're all criminals, right?" he says. "I may like the sound of the music, but the business practices are worthy of me just saying 'Forget it. I have no interest,'" he says. On principle, he spends his entertainment dollars on musicians who distribute their music on their Internet, without relying on pre-digital distribution.

Metallica and other copyright holders, McOrmond counters, are stuck in an industrial-economy mindset when digital technology has created a post-industrial, information economy. He likens tight-fisted copyrighter holders to the Luddites of yore. "At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we had people like the Luddites smashing machines," McOrmond says. "Here's one of the problems of this transition (now) -- the Luddites are the richest and most powerful people on the planet."

New business models must emerge, most likely based more on services than on property, he contends.

McOrmond will put all these ideas and more in front of the federal government panel next week -- even if he is not optimistic. Industry Canada, he contends, supports big business over little business and consumers. "Its raison d'etre is to oppose me," he says. His only chance, he adds, is to convince Heritage Canada that it must be the public's champion regarding copyright.

McOrmond has already given several public presentations on digital copyright, and wonders if ultimately, they will do more to advance his cause. He has spoken to a group of Ottawa teachers during a professional development day. He has also addressed computer science classes at J.S. Woodsworth Secondary School, on one occasion after the students had watched a screening of Anti-Trust.

The students gave his talk a mixed reception, he says.

"The general feeling was yes, we agree with you, this is wrong, this is big business. All these people are owning everything," he says. However, while the students agreed with McOrmond, they thought that activism was futile. "They felt there's nothing they can do about it. That's just the way it is."

McOrmond says he has no higher calling than to combat such resignation.

"The idea of going into a classroom of essential disconnected, disillusioned students and giving them a feeling they are participants in this society, that to me is the most important contribution I could ever make."

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