Don’t you dare use the number 271277229129081016424883074559900780951 under any circumstances. It’s mine, mine I tell you, and if you use it, or copy it, I can have you arrested and sent to do hard time in prison. And it doesn’t matter whether you use it in decimal, like I used above, or it’s hexidecimal form, “CC16180895F94705F667F1BB6DB20997”, or any other way of encoding it. It’s my number, and you’re not allowed to use it. In fact, I don’t think I want to allow you to look at it – so I’m going to sue all of you for having read this post!
Yes, I’m serious. At least in theory, using that number is a serious crime under US law. And under US law, I’m even allow to show it to you, and then retroactively take back your permission to see it – so that I can effectively force you to break the law, and then penalize you for it.
In case you’ve had your head under a rock for the last few weeks, there’s been some interestingly insane legal manuevering concerning a similar number. A member of the consortium that manages the content protection scheme for HD-DVD accidentally let slip info about a number like the one above. What they did was accidentally put a copy of the encryption key used by a large number of currently published HD-DVDs where someone could see it, and an enterprising geek used the opening to get the key and publish it.
If your were a sane, reasonable person, you might think that if the HD-DVD publishers screwed up and let the cat out of the bag, that they’d be stuck with the consequences. After all – it’s just a damned number, and they’re the ones who screwed up and told us what it was.
Well, all of you sane people out there (are there any sane people who read this blog?) would be wrong. Because under that Digital Millenium Copyright Act (aka the DMCA), that isn’t just a number. It’s a adevice: to be specific, a copyright circumvention device. And just possessing a copyright circumvention device that could allow you to violate a copyright is illegal without the permission of the copyright holder. So having the number on your screen is enough to put you in violation of the law.
The number that I put up is was used by Freedom to Tinker to encrypt a copyrighted poem by Lawrence Lessig. They generated the number, and then assigned all rights involving its use as a decryption key to me. So legally, I now own that number – because it’s a copyright circumvention device. So it doesn’t matter if that happens to be the number of starts in some galaxy: you can’t use it. It doesn’t matter if rendered as a bitmap, it makes a nice pattern that you’d like to use in the background of a picture: you can’t use that background pattern. In fact, it doesn’t even matter if you used that bitmap as part of a background pattern 5 years ago: now that I own the number, your bitmap is retroactively illegal, and I can legally demand that you take down every copy of your image anywhere on the net.
Such is the stupidity of laws written by people who are incapable of understanding what they mean. I don’t think that even the boneheads in Congress are stupid or insane enough to think that this is the way that the law should work. But they went along with what the MPAA lobbyists asked for, even though they didn’t have a clue of how insanely egregious it was. And now they’ll continue to support it, telling anyone who’ll listen that people like me are lying – even while the legal threats aimed at anyone who used that number continue to fly.