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Welcome Interviews Jon Lech Johansen
April 4, 2005
Thomas Mennecke
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Depending on your point of view, Jon Lech Johansen is either your hero or adversary. To the copyright industry, Jon Lech Johansen has been a detriment to their policy of control since the advent of DeCSS (Decrypt Content Scrambling System.) To those who cherish freedom, he has been a pillar of hope in an age when DRM (Digital Rights Management) threatens to overtake mainstream media.

Jon Lech Johansen became well known for his role in the development of DeCSS. Jon spent 3 long years in the Norwegian courts proving his innocence. The American movie industry pressured the Norwegian Economic Crime Unit to press charges against Jon Lech Johansen in 2000 for allegedly bypassing the CSS copy protection on DVDs.

After two trials, the courts finally ruled in Jon’s favor. However, there is much more to Jon Lech Johansen than DeCSS. In this interview, Slyck hopes to bring to light the many facets of Mr. Johansen, and the numerous projects he is involved with.

Describe your role in the development of DeCSS. Was is a group effort or were you the mastermind behind it?

DeCSS was written by 3 people: a German developer, a Dutch developer and myself. The reverse engineering was done by the German.

From time to time I see people repeat the claim that DeCSS was only made possible because a DVD player manufacturer forgot to "protect" their DVD player. This is a myth that is perpetuated by people who don't understand how computers work. Code obfuscation only slows down reverse engineering, it doesn't block it.

What was the motivation behind creating DeCSS?

The motivation was being able to play DVDs the way we want to. I don't like being forced to use a specific operating system or a specific player to watch movies (or listen to music.) Nor do I like being forced to watch commercials. When your DVD player tells you "This operation is not allowed" when you try to skip commercials, it becomes pretty clear that DRM really stands for Digital Restrictions Management.

Did you ever expect the level of legal entanglements; and for it to become as popular as it is today?

No and no.

How difficult was it do break the CSS encryption? What did it take to break the encryption?

Technically DeCSS didn't break CSS. Breaking a crypto algorithm requires revealing and/or exploiting a method that's faster than brute force. DeCSS simply implemented CSS the same way as a normal DVD player.

CSS was however broken by Frank Andrew Stevenson: Many DVD decryption tools today exploit the weaknesses in CSS that he revealed.

Another myth is that DeCSS is illegal because it uses a "stolen" key. A CSS key is 5 bytes. How anyone can think that it's possible to "steal" 5 bytes is beyond me. 5 bytes do not have any protection under copyright law because it's not an original work. It's probably possible for 5 bytes to be protected under trade secret law, but CSS hasn't been a trade secret since De_CSS was released and mirrored all over the net. Is someone who names their child "Frank" (5 bytes) stealing Frank's name? It's absurd.

Was there at any point during the DeCSS trials when you felt you were in serious trouble, or were you confident throughout that you would emerge victorious?

I was confident throughout.

What was the expression(s) on the face of the movie industry when you were finally acquitted?

The MPAA's (or rather, the MPA, which is the international arm of the MPAA) Norwegian lawyer was present for most of the first trial. I don't remember if he was present when the judgment was handed down, but if he was, he was probably wearing his standard grumpy look.

For the acquittal in the appeals court I don't know because I wasn't present (I was in France).

Although your name became famous from your involvement in DeCSS, what can you tell us about yourself prior to this?

Well, I had just turned 16 at the time of DeCSS, so I hadn't really done anything that would be of interest to the general public before that.

What other noteworthy accomplishments did you achieve that others may not know about?

A personal achievement was the Norwegian Karoline award. It's awarded each year by a private high school in Oslo to any high school student in Norway who has excellent grades and who has achieved something noteworthy outside of school in the arena of music, sports or culture. I received the award due to my involvement with DeCSS.

Also, all three of us (De_CSS authors) received the EFF Pioneer award:

From DeCSS to PyMusique, many see you as the DRM anti-hero (or the anti-DRM hero.) What is your motivation behind targeting the music and movie industry’s copy protection technology?

My motivation is to preserve the copyright bargain (copyright balance.) The content industry claims that the balance needs to be changed because they face impending doom, but we've heard that before (Betamax) and the numbers keep telling us otherwise:

People who claim that the iTMS DRM is a "good compromise" have naively bought into the impending doom propaganda.

What are your thoughts on DRM? Do you believe it has any place on the Internet?

I oppose all proprietary formats (which is in essence what DRM is), whether they be on the Internet or not.

Do you feel you (or anyone else) are free to develop software that defeats DRM without fear of retribution?

Yes, but that's about to change now that Norway is implementing the EUCD (European version of DMCA). There is a public hearing on the suggested implementation in a few days. DeCSS will probably become illegal just like under the DMCA in the US, but a DVD player like VLC will remain legal.

Have you had any additional trouble from the movie or music industry since your acquittal?


Tell us a bit about PyMusique; what should people not mistaken it for? What are your hopes for it?

PyMusique (and SharpMusique) is and will remain a simple iTMS client. Other developers are working on rendering the store just like iTunes does, but personally I'm not interested in that.

Like any software developer, I hope for more users :-D

Have you or anyone from your team heard anything from Apple's legal team?

Regarding *Musique? No.

How long will you keep up the technological arms race against Apple? Is there a point were you will say "forget this" or are you committed with the PyMusique project?

I'm committed. However, I do this in my spare time and I make no money off it so I'm not going to drop everything else I'm doing whenever Apple changes their protocol or formats, but I'll get to it eventually.

I've yet to be contacted by a rich person who wants to sponsor my Fair Use work :-D

How long do you feel you will be active in developing products that defeat copy protection? Do you see yourself moving on to different fields?

No idea. Perhaps I'll grow tired one day, but I'm not there yet.

Judging from the experience you’ve gained, how would you gauge the evolution of copy-protection technology’s sophistication? In other words, has it become easier or more difficult to circumvent such technology?

It's difficult to say something on a general basis. In my experience it's becoming more time-consuming, but not more difficult.

What is the next big thing to come from Jon Lech Johansen? What other projects or programs can we look forward to?

No comment :-D

How do you coordinate your efforts with other programmers around the world?

Mailing lists and IRC.

If you could, tell us what online groups you belong to.

I'd prefer not to, as I'd rather not have everyone and their dog contacting me on IRC:-D

If someone has a genuine need to get in touch, it's not difficult to find me though.

Other than computers or programming, what other interests do you have?

Politics. Movies. France. Nanotechnology. Not necessarily in that order :-D

Now that you are 21, I assume you are attending University. What is your major?

Actually...I haven't attended university. I quit high school to work in the computer industry.

Many people on Apple related websites seem to have less than kind words for you. What is your reaction to this criticism?

I ignore comments about technical or legal issues from people who have proven that they understand neither. Arguing with unreasonable people who hide behind anonymity is a waste time, so I don't bother.

Slyck would like to thank Jon Lech Johansen for taking the time out of his busy schedule to participate in this interview.

This story is filed in these Slyck News categories
Technology News :: DRM

Jon Lech Johansen's Homepage.

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