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Hollywood loses DVD piracy case

A teenage software programmer in Norway has beat Hollywood in an important early round of the motion picture industry’s international struggle to control the copy protection mechanisms on commercial DVD entertainment releases.

Jon Lech Johansen, 19, was acquitted of digital piracy in Oslo after, in 1999, developing a software application called DeCSS. The computer program empowers DVD users to unlock security codes that are designed to prevent the copying of content.

A three-member legal panel of the Oslo City Court ruled that Johansen had broken no laws by using and distributing the software. Perhaps, more important to Hollywood, the panel found that the young defendant — as the rightful owner of the DVDs in question — was free to view and copy them in any way he chose.

The right to view and copy legally purchased software has longtime been a right enjoyed by Americans. However, due to Hollywood’s recent political lobbying, software like DeCSS is illegal in the United States. It was made so under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a 1998 federal law that outlaws the creation and distribution of technology that enables users to disable copyright protections on motion pictures, music and other forms of software.

European laws are much less harsh and apparently so are international attitudes about copy protection. The Johansen case was considered a major setback for the American motion picture industry. “The court finds that someone who buys a DVD film that has been legally produced has legal access to the film. Something else would apply if the film had been an illegal, pirate copy,” the ruling said.

The court found that the rights of consumers apply to legally obtained DVDs “even if the films are played in a different way than the makers had foreseen.”

While Johansen said he was “very satisfied” with the verdict, the Motion Picture Association of America indicated it would support an appeal, which must be filed within two weeks.

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