Article by Peter Maass

The Supercool Top-Secret DVD-Decoder Song

The New Yorker  |  October 16, 2000
Talk of the Town

Since 1998, the Internet site MP3.com has served as an on-line bazaar, where any garage band in the universe can offer up its music and wait for the accolades to pour in. More than half a million songs are posted on the site, but Joseph Wecker’s “Descramble” is not one of them. On September 11th, only four days after Wecker posted his song, and just after it topped the site’s folk-music chart, he received a terse E-mail from MP3 saying that his song was being pulled, because it had “either a song title or lyrics that are offensive or otherwise inappropriate.” This may seem surprising for a work whose lyrics don’t get much racier, or more intelligible, than “Retrieve byte 1 of KEY/XOR it with byte 85 of SEC/And store the result in t2.”

In fact, the lyrics of “Descramble” are passages from a controversial software code, known as DeCSS, that enables hackers to decrypt movie DVDs, copy them onto their computers, and, if they wish, share their pirated films with anyone on the Internet. The code, which was created a year ago by a fifteen-year-old computer whiz in Norway, drew immediate reprisals from the movie industry. The Motion Picture Association of America, fearing that DeCSS would be its Napster, sued web sites that posted the code; a firm that merely printed it on T-shirts was hit with a related lawsuit. In August, a federal judge in New York took Hollywood’s side, ruling that it was against the law to disseminate DeCSS on the web.

In the midst of the court case, Wecker, a twenty-two-year-old college student and computer programmer in Salt Lake City, came up with the idea to compose, record, and upload “Descramble,” a seven-and-a-half-minute recitation of the code accompanied by a gloomily strummed acoustic guitar. (Imagine Lou Reed singing a calculus textbook.) In this way, as Wecker saw it, the code would be protected by the First Amendment. “I thought it would be funny if I wrote a song with source code as lyrics, to make the point that source code is speech,” Wecker said the other day. “It’s like explaining to your neighbors how to take apart a toaster. It shouldn’t be illegal.”

Wecker"s favorite band is Radiohead; the name of his own band (which recently recorded a grungier version of “Descramble”) is Don’t Eat Pete. “I’m just your standard starving college student,” he explained by telephone. “But I’m not starving, because I own three Internet businesses, and they’re doing wonderfully.”

Within days of posting the song on his web site, Wecker got about ten downloads. “I thought that was awesome,” he says. The judge’s ruling against DeCSS, however, transformed “Descramble” from hacker joke to geek protest anthem. Wecker got thousands of downloads, so he decided to post the song on MP3, where the big time beckoned. “Everyone kept calling it the Bob Dylan song of the wired age,” Wecker says. “But I wrote it in a half hour during a lunch break.”

“Descramble” is not particularly easy to sing along to, nor is it really very stirring. It isn’t even especially good. But it is lucky. The best thing that can happen to a protest song is for it to be banned somewhere, and now Wecker has a hit. The song has been downloaded about sixty thousand times on his site alone and has been played on alternative and college radio stations. Wecker performed it on a television show in Canada. And nobody from the movie industry has tried to stop him. “We will not be suing this songwriter,” Mark Litvack, the vice-president of the M.P.A.A.‘s anti-piracy division, said.

Still, MP3, which likes to think of itself as a supporter of free speech, has made the premptive decision to ban the song. “It is a smart business move to stay within the letter of the law,” a spokesman for MP3 said, citing the judge’s August ruling. Wecker received a fuller explanation in an E-mail from another MP3 employee. “We’re sorta being sued by enough people right now,” the employee wrote. “I guess we’d like to keep out of court for a while, if that’s O.K.”

Wecker isn’t sure where he’ll go with “Descramble,” but, because the song uses only a quarter of the forbidden code, he’s got plenty of material left to work with. He said, “I have toyed with the idea of releasing an album.”

—Peter Maass