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Friday, August 26, 2005

You will want to read this one on technology and the law

This was in Today's USA today

It opens a number of areas for all of us to consider when thinking about technology and how the law may need refining to meet the needs of technology

Posted 8/25/2005 10:47 PM

CyberSpeak by Andrew Kantor

With technology, it's easy to break the law
Legally, it's been a gray week for me.

I took apart and repaired a 15-year-old, Freon-filled air conditioner without an EPA permit. I destroyed a wasp's nest with a makeshift flamethrower, using an aerosol can of cleaner "in a manner inconsistent with its labeling."

And then I went hardcore. Well, sort of.

I got myself a new laptop at work; I bring it home on weekends for safekeeping. It has built-in Wi-Fi networking, and I had a Wi-Fi hotspot in my house.

As soon as I turned it on, the laptop found and connected to a Wi-Fi network. This was cool; I appreciate how easy it works. But it was also odd, because my Wi-Fi network is encrypted. You need a password to access it, and I hadn't entered one.

I pulled up the list of networks, and there was mine, locked down, along with a few others, also locked. There was also one unencrypted one and I was connecting through it. The computer is set to search for the strongest network it can access and use it.

As I wasn't planning on bringing my machine home more than occasionally, it was easier to piggyback on this mysterious signal than to set up my own network.

There have been plenty of stories about how you should secure your wireless network, and doing so isn't difficult: a handful of clicks, really. Some neighbors had done so, but one had not, and now I was using his Internet connection.

Technically, this is theft. Sort of. (One reason it's not is that I figured out which neighbor it was, and I told him. He didn't mind.)

But it's a good example of how traditional definitions don't always fit in the brave new world. Was I stealing? I was depriving my neighbor of bandwidth. I was slowing his access. But what if he wasn't online? (In fact, he wasn't home at the time.)

More importantly, he was leaving his network unsecured, so any PC with a Wi-Fi card in the area would pick it up.

He doesn't pay for time on the network, so I'm not costing him anything. He wasn't using the network then, so I wasn't depriving him of anything. Free WiFi connections are all over, so I wasn't depriving an ISP of revenue.

Still, that hasn't stopped other people from getting arrested for "stealing" a signal.

Terrible twos

My two-year-old does not quite understand the concept of "don't scratch your DVDs." He's already ruined a few CDs, but DVDs are more expensive and we've been good about keeping them out of his (literally) grubby hands.

The smart thing to do is make a backup and keep the original safely put away. This way Sam only risks a 50-cent disk, not a $20 one.

There are a bunch of programs out there for making backups of your DVDs with names like 1Click DVD Copy, DVD Wizard Pro, and DVD Cloner.

I use one called DVD Decrypter, which I like for two reasons: 1) It's free, and 2) it can remove UOPs from the DVD before making a copy.

If you have a DVD player, you've bumped into UOPs, or "user operation prohibitions." They stop you when you try to do something to the DVD you're not supposed to do.

For example, some of Sam's disks come from a company that fills the first 10 minutes with commercials for its other products. The UOPs prohibit you from skipping them.

Can you imagine if you tried to read your child a book but couldn't start until you flipped through 20 pages of ads?

That's why, when I made a backup of these disks, I also removed the UOPs. Now Sam can be as rough as he likes and we can skip the commercials, too. The original is safe, and Sam is spared from yet more advertising.

Is what I did against the law? Not yet, but the entertainment industry wants it to be.

Gray area

My father sent me birthday greetings with a card that has a photo of a New York scene of Fort Washington Park with the George Washington Bridge in the background. I'm always happy to see scenes of New York, but this one made me stop.

From the angle the shot was taken, you could just see, under the bridge, the Little Red Lighthouse.

"Holy moly!" I said. Entirely by accident, he had sent me a card that brought back memories of one of my favorite childhood books. I scanned the card and sent it to a friend with a note, "Holy moly!"

Now that card was copyrighted art, yet here I was, scanning it and sending it to someone. Breaking the law or fair use? Obviously, fair use. I think. I wasn't profiting from it and wasn't depriving anyone of anything. It was in the context of a review.

Had it been a digital image I paid for, however, and not an analog one, that would have been exactly the kind of thing content creators want to prevent.

For now, though, I still have my copyrights — at least to some extent. (And let's not forget that the idea of copyright was to protect the rights of content consumers as much as those of creators. It's something the entertainment industry has paid Congress to ignore.)

I still can change my car's oil without a license, permit, or certification. I can still build a potato cannon and fix my air conditioner. I can still copy my CDs to my MP3 player and use my TiVo to watch Friday's Battlestar Galactica again.

But as technology marches on, our laws don't always march with it. They're written by men with agendas that are different than ours — men who don't understand (or have the incentive to understand) what they're trying to legislate.

So chances are there will come a day when there won't be room for men to meddle with technology. The sad thing is that we'll think what they do is against the law in the first place.

Andrew Kantor is a technology writer, pundit, and know-it-all who covers technology for the Roanoke Times. He's also a former editor for PC Magazine and Internet World. Read more of his work at His column appears Fridays on