Tonight my daughter, a.k.a. Little Sweetie, requested a bedtime story that was “more educational”. (Apparently she didn’t like my version of the Three Little Pigs, in which the Big Bad Wolf helps the pigs with their unwanted facial hair.) After trying her on the tragedy of the commons — my version stressed the importance of taking care of common assets, rather than the virtue of enclosures — I landed on the story of DeCSS.
DeCSS was one of the most colourful stories that made it into my doctoral research. The version that I included in my dissertation didn’t seem quite right for a six-year-old, so I came up with a slightly revised edition that took some small significant liberties with the facts. Here it is:
Once upon an eon* there was a little boy who wanted to watch Star Wars on DVD. But he didn’t have a TV, and he couldn’t watch Star Wars on his computer because his computer didn’t know how to play a DVD. But he was a clever boy, and so he decided to write his own computer program — a program that would let him watch his DVD.
As soon as he got his program working he sat down to watch Star Wars. It was great! In fact it was so great that it made him feel sorry for all the other kids with computers like his — computers that couldn’t play DVDs. So he shared his computer program with other kids by putting it on the Internet, where other people could find the program if they needed it.
A few weeks later, there was a knock on the door. BAM! BAM!
“Who’s there?” the little boy asked.
“The police! We want to look at your computer. We think you are the boy who put the DVD-watching program on the Internet.”
“Come back with a warrant!” the little boy said. **
“Humpf!” said the police officer, and she went away.
The next day, there was another knock at the door. BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! This time, there were two police officers.
“Do you have a warrant?” the little boy asked.
“Yes!” the police officers shouted.
The little boy opened the door. “Why do you want to look at my computer?” he asked.
“The people who make movies don’t want you to watch DVDs on your computer,” the police officer explained. “You aren’t allowed to share your DVD-watching program anymore.”
But the police forgot one thing: the little boy wasn’t alone. When the little boy shared his computer program on the Internet, he made thousands of friends all over the world — friends who appreciated how nice he was to share his computer program.
And one of those friends had a great idea. If the police wouldn’t let them share their computer programs, they’d share something else — something the police weren’t allowed to keep them from sharing. Like art, or music, or poetry: the law says that people have to be allowed to make and share whatever art they want.
So the little boy’s friends took his computer program and hid it in pictures. They hid it in songs. They even hid it inside a movie.
The police were mad. The people who made the DVDs were mad. But they all knew that they couldn’t keep the little boy and his friends from sharing their art work…and from sharing a computer program that helped a lot of people all over the world.
* Little Peanut was very insistent that all of tonight’s stories began, “once upon an eon” instead of “once upon a time”.
** Little Sweetie and I spent some time earlier this evening role-playing the proper response to law enforcement authorities who want to sweep the house for media downloads and unlicensed Disney merchandise.