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OPINION JANUARY 29, 2001
Talkin' Smack: Fire from the Skies

Lessons from DirecTV's direct assault on pirates

by David Nagel
Executive Producer
[email protected]

There's something beautiful about an unexpected, unprecedented, brutal act of aggression, an act vindictive and personal, skirting the boundaries of legality, especially when it comes from a large corporation with something to lose. I'm referring to the assault from the skies last week of DirecTV, the digital satellite service provider, against pirates of its service. Seems DirecTV didn't like people viewing their premium and pay per view programs without paying for them. So, in short, after years of legal battles, they took matters into their own hands and sent a satellite signal to destroy the hardware that was enabling piracy on their receivers.

No federal agencies involved. No politically calculated FBI sting operations. No press conference in which some bureaucrat or another justifies his salary by announcing that he and his team of dedicated law enforcement officials have made the American public safe from the scare du jour—pirates, commies, militias, heavy metal bands, cults, the media, video game makers or whatever. (You're a sucker if you believe any of it.)

No, this was simply some smart programmers outsmarting some other smart programmers by apparently permanently disabling a popular hacked hardware key. (I say "apparently" because I, myself, am not a programmer, so I wouldn't know. DirecTV and satellite hackers themselves seem to agree that it's permanent.) Plus, DirecTV's programmers clearly took pride in their work, even going so far as to include the phrase "Game Over" in their destructive code.

Very clever.

What's more, it heralds a new phase in the protection of intellectual property. Hey, if you've been the victim of piracy and the courts can't help you, just send out some code to wreck the offending equipment. Let's say, for example, that your company released the first GUI on the market, then some sleazeball knockoff artist comes along and steals your work, hypothetically using the ill-gotten technology to make himself the richest man in the world and nearly drive you out of business. What do you do? You send his customers a proper Blue Screen of Death—complete with the words "Game Over, Peecee User!"

A psychofanatic can dream.

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Dave Nagel is the producer of Creative Mac and Digital Media Designer; host of the Creative Mac, Adobe InDesign, Adobe LiveMotion and Synthetik Studio Artist WWUGs; and executive producer of Creative Mac, Digital Media Designer, Digital Pro Sound, Digital Webcast, Plug-in Central, Presentation Master, ProAudio.net and Video Systems sites. All are part of the Digital Media Net family of online industry hubs.

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