The Coders' Code


In September, the button-down corporate world got a lesson in hacker ethics.

The music industry has been flogging something called the Secure Digital Music Initiative as a response to unencrypted CDs and a polyglot of online music formats. SDMI is supposed to deliver music that can't be turned into a million free MP3 files. At least that's the theory. In reality, the standard has been slow in coming and may not protect music any better than encrypted DVDs protected movies.

Enter the SDMI Web site hacksdmi.org. It posted several SDMI-encoded files and offered a prize of $10,000 to anyone who could bust the code. The contest was a clumsy attempt to harness the power of open-source software development, in which informal bodies of coders attack a common problem. SDMI Executive Director Leonardo Chiariglione called it a chance for hackers "to shape the future of digital music."

Hackers—programmers, really—didn't see it that way. Soon calls for a boycott of the SDMI challenge proliferated across the Net.

Open-source software maven Eric Raymond denounced the SDMI effort, noting that a good SDMI would be bad for those who believe in the free flow of information. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which supports civil liberties in cyberspace, also called for coders to boycott the contest, noting that SDMI "has indicated an interest in severely limiting your ability to listen to digital recordings in your favorite format and in undermining all attempts at non-SDMI-compliant music distribution models."

The response was so negative that SDMI had to have seen it coming. That, in turn, set some programmers to speculating that what the music industry was really after was a list of people who might be able to break its encryption.

But a simpler explanation is at hand. The hack-a-format contest was never intended to make an impression on the wired world. Its real target was the ground which has proven quite fertile for the music industry: the courts, the regulators, and Congress. The contest was a cheap way to demonstrate just how unreasonable those strident bit jockeys really are. Expect this spin: Our attempts at inclusiveness were met with a hysterical boycott!

Of course, the Electronic Frontier Foundation actually attempted to be part of the formal SDMI process from the beginning, so as to steer it away from a massive expansion of copyright protections. But that didn't fit the music industry's game plan.