A programmers’ protest: code as civil disobedience. Composed of six elegant lines of code, the qrpff program effectively neutralized the secret Hollywood content scrambling systems embedded on commercial DVDs. Today, qrpff stands as a watershed demonstration of an essential ideal: that code is a form of free speech.
“Unf#&%ing believable,” said Jack Valenti. It was 2004, and Keith Winstein had just shown a printout of qrpff to the powerful head of the Motion Picture Association of America lobbying group.
Composed of six elegant lines of code, the qrpff program, written in 2001 by Winstein and his fellow MIT graduate Marc Horowitz, effectively neutralized the secret Hollywood content-scrambling systems embedded in commercial DVDs. Zealously guarding their broad copyright protection in court, the MPAA and other corporate bodies had fought hard to have decryption programs far more complex than qrpff labeled as illegal circumvention “devices.” But how could a few written lines—something compact enough to be scrawled on a postcard or a cocktail napkin—be regarded as a device? No wonder Valenti was flummoxed.
Today, qrpff stands as a watershed demonstration of essential ideals: that code is a form of free speech and, as Winstein says, “a creative means of expression.” In the computer science world, qrpff is a proud emblem, a small but significant blow struck for the cause of open access to knowledge.
This lot includes an original necktie inscribed with the qrpff algorithm, and printed lecture material which Keith Winstein used during his 2001 MIT class when teaching the values of code as free speech. This lot also includes a commemorative 3D-printed Babylonian styled tablet containing the password to a private Github repository where the buyer may access an image of the items included in this lot, and a link to the full qrpff code base which has been posted online by Keith Winstein. The tablet is in two parts with combined dimensions 6.9 x 3.4 x .76 in.
Please note: The buyer of this lot may not deduct any part of the purchase price as a charitable contribution. Access to Github is not guaranteed and is subject to Github's terms of service. This lot is not part of Smithsonian or Cooper Hewitt collections or property.
About Keith Winstein
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.