Waiting for the Judge Jon Lech Johansen waits for his case to begin in a Norway court. The U.S. movie industry had gone after DVD-Jon, as he came to be called, for publishing code that enabled others to copy disks. He was acquitted.
© Len Irish
Copyright law protects intellectual property, with a lot of twists wrought by emerging technology.
The heart of U.S. mass media law is the First Amendment’s guarantee of free expression.
The First Amendment has come to be applied more broadly over the years.
Anyone falsely slandered by the mass media may sue for libel.
Mass media generally may not intrude on someone’s solitude.
Shaking Up Hollywood
By age 12, Jon Lech Johansen had written his first computer program. That made him a wunderkid of sorts. But nobody foresaw that he would, while still a teenager, devise programs that would shake the billion-dollar Hollywood movie industry to its core. His genius also would make him a folk hero to millions of movie-lovers worldwide.
Jon-Lech, as he came to be lionized in his native Norway, began his trek to notoriety unwittingly. He loved movies. By 15 he owned 360 DVDs. Some he bought at jacked-up Norwegian prices because Hollywood’s geographical coding prevented European computers from playing U.S.-issued versions. Other DVDs he bought from U.S. sources, and with coding he invented, he played them on his computer in Oslo. It all was perfectly legal in Norway. He recalls reveling at his accomplishment when he first ripped copies of The Matrix and The Fifth Element.
“Why shouldn’t others share my enjoyment?” he asked himself. A week later, he posted his coding on the Internet.
Hollywood went ballistic, recognizing that Jon-Lech’s coding could be used to bypass the encrypting that prevented their DVD movies from being easily swapped through file-sharing. The revenue loss could be devastating. The Motion Picture Association of America pushed Norwegian authorities to act. Police raided the Johansen home, confiscated Jon-Lech’s computer, and put him through seven hours of interrogation. Confident he had done nothing wrong, Jon-Lech even gave police the password to his computer.
Johansen thus found himself at the vortex of a continuing struggle between the rights of megamedia conglomerates that own creative material and the rights of individuals to do what they want with products they buy—in this case copying DVDs, and also music, to play on any number of their own devices.
For the trial, Hollywood executives flew to Oslo to argue that Johansen had unleashed software that facilitated movie piracy and could put the movie industry in ruins. Johansen responded that he had committed no wrongdoing, let alone piracy, and that he had a fundamental human right of free expression to share his coding however he wanted. In effect, he said: “Go after the pirates, not me.” Jon-Lech fancied himself a consumer advocate, allowing people to use their DVD purchases as they wanted—on computers at home, on laptops on the road, on handheld devices anywhere else. The court agreed. In fact, when the prosecution appealed, the court again agreed.
In the run-up to the trial, Jon-Lech supporters worldwide distributed T-shirts and neckties printed with his software. In the May Day parade in Oslo, backers carried a banner “Free DVD-Jon.” The issue inspired a haiku. Meanwhile, more than 1 million copies of his anti-DVD encryption software had been downloaded from Johansen’s site.
For better or worse, depending on your perspective, Norway later revised its laws to forbid software that could be used to undermine copyright protections, as the United States had done earlier at the behest of giant media companies. But the issue lives on, as you will discover in this chapter on mass media law. The chapter includes the most pressing media law dilemma in the early 21st century—the protection of intellectual property.
Products produced by mass media companies go by the legal name of intellectual property. Copyright law protects ownership rights to intellectual property. Other rights, including consumer rights and free expression rights, have arisen to challenge the long-held supremacy of copyright. Mass media companies are worried.
Copyright has been around since the beginning of the Republic. The founders wrote copyright law into the Constitution. When Congress first convened in 1790, the second law to be passed was for copyright. The whole idea was to encourage creativity. With creative work classified as property, creative people have a legal right to derive income from their works by charging for their use. An author, for example, can charge a book publisher a fee for publishing the book. Actually, it’s a little more complicated, but that’s the idea. The goal was to guarantee a financial incentive for creative people to keep creating. Why? The rationale was that a society is richer for literature and music and other creative w