Professor Ordered to Remove DVD Software; MPAA Letter Spurs Action by UNC Legal Counsel

Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Wednesday, April 12, 2000. (Slight changes posted April 23; the old version is here).

Assistant Professor Gregory B. Newby today received email from the office of the Legal Counsel at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Newby has been asked by the Legal Counsel to remove materials he has been using for his class, INLS 183, Distributed Systems and Analysis.

The materials that Dr. Newby has been asked to remove are files css-auth.tar.gz, and their contents. These files are at the center of a controversy involving the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and anonymous software authors. The files contain programs that enable Windows or Linux computers to play movies on DVDs (Digital Versitile Disks) without using software licensed by the DVD Copy Control Association.

According to Dr. Newby, the file had been added to the materials for his course in December 1999, while he was preparing for the course. INLS 183 is a hands-on course in Unix systems administration and software installation, and includes demonstrations or discussins of over 100 different programs.

The DVD programs were judged as important by Dr. Newby because they enable people to play DVDs they purchase on legitimate DVD players, but on systems for which no DVD CCA licensed software is available. The class exercises and demonstrations focus on Linux systems, for which there is no available DVD CCA licensed software.

The MPAA has has filed suit in courts in NY, CA and CT to prevent distribution of these programs, and has received Preliminary Injunctions in these cases against the defendants. According to legal experts, the Preliminary Injunctions only apply to the named defendants, and only in the states in which the Preliminary Injunctions were issued, and thus do not apply to Dr. Newby's class Web pages or any of the other 300 or so locations around the world that provide copies of the programs.

Dr. Newby first heard there might be a problem on March 17, when he received a copy of email sent to Jeanne Smythe, Director of ATN Computer Policy at UNC Chapel Hill by attorneys for the MPAA. The letter specified the Internet address for the INLS 183 Web pages, and asked that any files related to DVD encryption be removed.

For Dr. Newby, this is a simple case of intellectual freedom. "In choosing to make these materials available, I evaluated the intellectual value of the programs to the class, and the fit of the materials with our class activities." Dr. Newby says he has followed the legal issues surrounding the programs with great interest, but never considered himself to be at risk.

"It was my belief that UNC would realize that court challenges in other states had no bearing on our activities in North Carolina. I also believe that the MPAA will not prevail in this matter - there's no way for these programs to go away from the Internet. The only basis for the court cases is the new Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which has some serious problems and legal challenges."

Dr. Newby is concerned about UNC's decision to force him to change his class materials. "Faculty receive a great degree of intellectual freedom in the classroom, and it's almost unheard of for professors to be censored like this," he said.

Dr. Newby does not believe he can fight UNC's order. If he did not remove the file himself, the systems administrator in SILS could. Or, the campus network administrator could simply deny access to the computers his class Web pages are on. "Ultimately, there's not a lot of support for an untenured faculty member to fight this sort of pressure," he said.

For additional information, contact Dr. Newby:

Gregory B. Newby, Assistant Professor in the School of Information
and Library Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
CB# 3360 Manning Hall, Chapel Hill, NC, 27599-3360

Telephone: 919-962-8064
Personal Web page:

Additional resources

Dr. Newby has written an essay about DVD encryption issues, Taking the High Road: CSS Issues.

The text of the letter from the MPAA is available here. Dr. Newby has also provided an annotated response.

Many organizations maintain public copies of the and css-auth.tar.gz software and provide additional information. They include:

Copyright (c) 2000 Gregory B. Newby. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.1 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation.