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Interview with Jon Johansen

** the interview below first appeared on shortly after the hack of CSS was published **

Jon Johansen is one of the three founding members of MoRE (Masters of Reverse Engineering), the trio of programmers who created a huge stir in the DVD marketplace by cracking the Content Scrambling System (CSS) encryption used to protect every DVD movie on the market. I recently had the opportunity to ask Jon a few questions.

Ken Pierce: The MPAA and the DVD CCA both claim that the software you helped develop was designed primarily to crack the copy protection on DVD movies. The OpenDVD consortium and various other sources claim the software was developed simply for the purpose of playing back DVD movies on unsupported operating systems (i.e. Linux, BeOS). When the software was being developed, what was the original intent?

Jon Johansen: The original intent was to be able to develop Linux dvd playback capabilities. This automatically includes other open operating systems.

KP: Both you and your father have been arrested and accused of helping distribute software designed to break copy protection. What are the official charges?

JJ: The charges consists of two points: 1. breaking a protection [system] or otherwise gaining unauthorized access to data 2. copyright violation or contribution to [copyright violation]

KP: The film industry is obviously being very aggressive in pursuing the people responsible for breaking their code. What bearing do you feel this case will have on the Internet and on the dissemination of information in general, if any?

JJ: I doubt that that it will ever reach court here in Norway. However, if the cases in the US continue as they have already done, I think free speech has been stabbed in the back by corporate lawyers. Reverse engineering will go underground or move to countries where free speech still exists. If linking to material that might be illegal, or linking to a page which links to a page which links to material which might be illegal, will become illegal, then anyone can see what kind of affect this will have on the Internet.

KP: You're very young (sixteen if I'm not mistaken), and I would assume still in school. What affect has all this publicity had on your day-to-day life?

JJ: Yes, I'm sixteen. I've had lots to do this week. I just bought a new computer and spent all night responding to 400 emails. I don't know what's worse, getting a visit from the police or being slashdotted. Anyway, I don't think I've done much homework this week.

KP: One of the things that cracking the CSS code has allowed is the easy removal of region codes on DVD movies. The studios claim they have every right to restrict movie releases in different markets. How do you respond to that?

JJ: As far as I see that's illegal. It prevents free trade and lets them charge different prices in different regions, like they do with Europe. Their region 2 releases mostly suck too, without all the extras. Corporate tactics like [this] are, as far as I know, illegal.

KP: As has been pointed out in several articles, copying a DVD movie in its entirety is very easy without ever touching the encryption scheme (just copy the encryption along with the movie). Still, the film industry claims that programs like DeCSS represent a threat to their copyrights. Do you feel they're right? Does a lack of encryption threaten their properties?

JJ: Lack of encryption threatens nothing but their oligopoly. Anyone can now make a dvd player without ever getting in touch with the DVD CCA, and without implementing region restriction. That's what they're afraid of, and they're handing the press this propaganda about piracy.

KP: Now that you've been arrested for your involvement in cracking DVD encryption, what is the next step for you?

JJ: I wasn't really arrested, just questioned and had my computers [and] cell-phone seized. I'm still waiting for [the] EFF to put together my defense team. Once that step is completed, I'll have them [make a] request [to] the court [to] give me back my equipment.

KP: If given the opportunity to turn back time, would you still get involved in breaking this encryption? In other words, if you could change it all, would you do it again?

JJ: I would not back out of a free speech fight, simply because things were getting hot. So the answer is yes.

KP: In your opinion, what is the best possible thing that could come out of this whole mess?

JJ: That consumers hold the power and that we don't have to see more of these corporate tactics for a very long time.

KP: The worst?

JJ: Reverse engineering is banned. Money (officially) controls the courts. Innovation dies. The human race commits suicide because of the latter.

KP: Several sources have reported that you are the person who was responsible for breaking the CSS encryption. You've since claimed that the media misrepresented your involvement. Would you like to clear up the record once and for all?

JJ: Yes, as I've always pointed out, it was the German member of our group who wrote the decryption code.

KP: I'd like to thank you for taking the time to answer these few questions. I realize that since your arrest you've probably been inundated with questions like these, and that your life has probably taken a very dramatic turn.

JJ: No problem.

KP: Please allow me to wish you the best in success in the future, and I certainly hope this all turns out well in the end.

JJ: Thanks.