Saturday, March 02, 2002

A Open letter to Jack Valenti and Michael Eisner

Jack, in your sneering washington Post piece about copy protection, you refer to professors for whom '"innovation" is legalizing the breaking of protection codes'. Michael, in your testimony to congress you badgered an Intel exec until he told you that files copying can't be prevented.

As you are evidently impervious to logical discussion, let me tell you a story.

This is the story of a rebel, a war hero, a persecuted homosexual, and a deep thinker. His life reads like the plot of a far-fetched movie, but if anyone fits your bogeyman image of professors who break code, it is Alan Turing.

In 1936 Turing published a paper on theoretical mathematics, in which he described the Universal Turing machine. It was a simple mechanism that could read symbols from a tape, and write back different symbols or change the tape's direction. He showed that with this general purpose machine, you could simulate any special purpose machine. He had invented the idea of the programmable computer.

Between 1938 and 1945, Turing worked in great secrecy on computing machines that broke codes. These were the first real computers ever made, and the codes they broke were those used by the German Wehrmacht. Without his work, it is very likely that Britain would have lost the War in Europe before Pearl Harbour.

After the war, in 1950 Turing published other famous papers that laid the foundation for computing, and hence all the digital gadgetry that you would like to outlaw for us (though presumably you'd keep the computers you use to edit and create effects for your movies). Turing died in 1954 by biting into an apple he had previously poisoned.

What does this story have to do with you?

Turings Universal Machine means that you cannot have a software or hardware protection scheme that is secure. Whatever scheme you come up with can be simulated by another computer. The computer industry are not opposing your bill because they want to encourage copying, or because they are bloody-minded, they are not opposing you because of your self serving rhetoric about rewarding artists (remember Peggy Lee, Michael?), they are opposing you because what you want is provably impossible. You can only succeed by making all Turing machines illegal.

If Alan Turing had made an animated film involving a poisoned apple in 1936, it would still have copyright protection. He chose a different path, and gave the world the idea of the digital computer. I know whom I repect more.

(Edits and improvements gratefully accepted).

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