Cory Doctorow on Hacking
THE LAST GENERATION
OF ENGINEER S
Why digital rights management
AT THE ELECTRONIC FRONTIER FOUNDATION,
part of my job is attending standards body meetings
where they’re hammering out agreements on Digital
Rights Management (DRM), the technology used to
restrict how you use the media you buy.
Photograph Copyright Corbis
The idea is that when you buy a TV, a PVR, a CD
player, or an eBook reader, the device will be slave pause button, and 50 cents for a fast-forward.
to the whims of the entertainment industry. With But the engineers really get to me. At a meeting in
DRM, a digital book will be set up to keep you from Edinburgh, this engineer who is a really nice guy
using it in any way not authorized by the publisher. was showing off the electronics kit he’d bought
Want to copy some text for your sig file? Loan it to a for his seven-year-old. “It’s a far cry from the cat’s
friend? Move it to a PDA? Tough. You’ll have to shell whiskers and crystals my grandfather and I used to
out more money to do less. Consider how cellphone build radios,” he said, reminiscing with the other
users get tricked into buying stripped-down versions engineers, most of whom had at one time built a
of their favorite music to play as ringtones. If you tuner out of parts just to see how it was done.
already own the MP3, why should you have to buy This engineer was a participant in a standards-
the ringtone? setting process for digital television. As part of
This is bad enough, but there’s an even bigger this standard, it is assumed that it will be illegal
downside for hardware hackers likely to buy an for anyone to build a digital television tuner unless
they’re working for an approved company and they
“Computer companies let promise to lock up the results in epoxy, obfuscated
code, and solder. Today you can build a really cool
entertainment companies DTV tuner out of software and an analog-to-digital
converter using the tools in the GNU Radio project
tell them how to build PCs.” ( gnu.org/software/gnuradio). But under the rules
these guys are helping to bring about, GNU Radio
issue of MAKE: these things come with a requirement would be illegal.
that the players be tamper resistant. For the first This engineer — he’s a skilled, passionate geek.
time, hardware vendors are required to make their He got to be that way when his grandpa showed
A/V equipment — and components, like hard him how to build a crystal tuner. But he’ll never sit
drives, video cards, and Fire Wire interfaces — resis- down with his own granddaughter and teach her
tant to attempts by end-users (that’s you) to how to hack a DTV tuner.
understand them, modify them, and improve them. The computer companies at these meetings
Worst of all is that the entertainment companies have sold us down the river. You’ve got about a year
are buying laws, like the FCC’s Broadcast Flag, to before the FCC makes GNU Radio illegal. Use it
make it illegal for anyone to make a player that can wisely. Go teach some kid to make a tuner. It might
be modified by users. be the last chance you get.
Back to the standards body meetings. They’re
full of engineers and lawyers. The lawyers usually Cory Doctorow ( craphound.com) is European Affairs
can’t see anything wrong with a world where Coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation ( eff.org), a co-editor on Boing Boing (boingboing. net), and an award-win-
their employers sell you your media one feature ning science fiction writer ( craphound.com/est). He lives in
at a time: 20 bucks for a video, another buck for a London, England.