Keith Winstein

Ruse Laboratories
Mar 18, 2015 2:43AM


Keith Winstein is an assistant professor of computer science and, by courtesy, of law at Stanford University. Throughout his career, Winstein has explored problems of clarity, efficiency, and openness through programming projects ranging from the DVD de-scrambling code qrpff (see the related lot in this auction) to Mosh, a popular mobile computing connectivity app. He did his undergraduate and graduate work at MIT. From 2007 through 2009, Winstein was a staff reporter at The Wall Street Journal, covering health care, medicine, and science.

About qrpff

This is qrpff, a six-line computer program that was written to explain Hollywood's secret DVD-scrambling method as concisely as possible. Marc Horowitz and I wrote qrpff between November 2000 and March 2001 as an exercise in "stunt coding": programming to make a point. For me, that point was about code as a creative means of expression.

Some backstory: Unlike with CDs or VHS tapes, a part of the way that a DVD player works was intended to be a secret. Hollywood studios encrypt DVDs with something called the Content Scramble System, or CSS. Before the fall of 1999, how to decrypt a DVD and play the movie was not publicly known. The secrecy gives the studios leverage over manufacturers of DVD players: only companies that agree to certain conditions can learn how to make a DVD player. Among the conditions: manufacturers have to agree not to let the consumer fast-forward past certain previews on the disc, and must make it difficult to copy the movie or play movies intended for sale in a different country.

It's understandable why Hollywood studios would want to make it difficult to copy their movies and fast-forward past previews, but as an eager freshman at MIT in the fall of 1999 -- an engineering student and a film buff -- I just wanted to make my own DVD player and learn for myself how the bits on a DVD are put together. I believed, then and now, that it's a lousy idea to restrict innovation and tinkering just to big manufacturers with lawyers. We all benefit when creativity can take flight anywhere.

For the most part, the secrecy ended in October 1999, when still-anonymous parties leaked the source code to a CSS "descrambler" on the Internet. They called it "DeCSS," and it allowed anybody to play or copy a DVD movie on their computers (and to fast-forward past anything). Hollywood responded with lawsuits against hundreds of people who had republished DeCSS, arguing that it revealed a trade secret and was a prohibited circumvention "device."

Predictably, this set off an Internet-wide avalanche of efforts to make the point that code is speech, by disseminating the method as creatively as possible. A researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, David Tourtezky, began curating an online "Gallery of CSS Descramblers." Seth Schoen wrote a lengthy haiku poem explaining the method. Joe Wecker wrote and sang an alternative rock song. And I decided to organize a two-day seminar for MIT's winter session, teaching the algorithm on the first day and hosting a panel discussion with a representative sent by Hollywood on the second.

To demonstrate the simplicity of what Hollywood was trying to suppress, Marc Horowitz and I worked to distill it down to the essence -- something that could fit on a T-shirt. We went through seventy-seven versions of the program between November 2000 and March 2001, each time shaving off a few letters as we thought of ways to simplify the program further and further. Once we got qrpff down to six lines, we sent it to David Touretzky, who posted it prominently on his gallery, where it was widely picked up by the technology press. It was printed on T-shirts reading "I am a circumvention device" and on a necktie. The June 2001 issue of Wired magazine included an annotated version of qrpff with commentary.

Three years later, I had the opportunity to interview the late Jack Valenti near the tail end of his 38-year tenure as president of the Motion Picture Association of America. Mr. Valenti advanced the view that movie-playing code was a "machine," and any manufacturer needed to be authorized by Hollywood's lawyers. He was not sympathetic to the concerns of a do-it-yourselfer. "How many people in the United States build their own sets?" he asked. I tried to get him to see things my way: that code can be simple and elegant and beautiful and that anybody can be its author. I pulled out a printout of qrpff's six lines that I had brought to the interview: "If you type that in, it'll let you watch movies," I told him. Mr. Valenti replied: "Un-fucking-believable." But I don't think he was persuaded. He died three years after that.

- Keith Winstein

Keith Winstein

Ruse Laboratories