Patrick Truchon's Web Portal

Digital locks picking

Posted by Patrick on March 22, 2012


This week on Search Engine, Jesse Brown interviewed Financial Post editor Terence Corcoran, who believes that the Canadian Copyright Bill C11 (now in its 3rd reading) is a step in the right direction. [1] Jesse tried to explain that one of the big points of contention about this bill is that it would make it illegal to break a digital, lock even for lawful purposes.

I’m no lawyer, so please correct me if I’m wrong, but here’s where I think I found this in the bill:

  • Section 41.1 says that it would be illegal to break a digital lock. [2]
  • Section 29.22 says that it would be legal to make copies of the work you own for your own use, provided that doing so doesn’t require to break a digital lock.  [3]

So there you have it.  One one hand, the bill gives reasonable bounds on what is legal or illegal copying based on intent: personal use is legal, distribution to others isn’t.  But then, it allows media corporations to collapse this distinction through the use of digital locks: no matter what the intent, you can not break a digital lock.

It means that (according to sec. 29.22) if I buy a CD, I can copy it to my computer or my phone, but I can’t give the files to my friends.  But (according to sec. 41.1), if I buy an audiobook encrypted with DRM that will only play on iTunes (as I unfortunately did once), I can’t remove the DRM to listen to it on my phone.  Same intent, different legal consequence.

Jesse tried to explain that distinction to his guest.  As it is often the case with computer-related technologies, they used a “real-world” analogy (a painting) to help their discussion.  I’m not sure how effective that particular analogy was, but I think I might have another one to offer:

My front door has a lock on it.  It is illegal for others to break and enter into my apartment without my consent, but it is not illegal to pick locks (as a hobby for example).  If I lose my keys, it would be legal for me to pick the lock of my own door (if I have the skills).  In fact:

“In Canada, possession of lock picking tools, with the exception of key duplication tools, is legal. Lock pick tools fit in the same category as crowbars or hammers, meaning they are legal to possess and use unless they are used to commit a crime or if it is shown there was “intention to commit a crime” in which case “Possession of tools with the intention of committing a crime” applies […] Some provinces require a license to carry lockpicks.  [4]

It should be the same with digital locks.  The legality of breaking them should be based on intent: personal use versus distribution.  Notice that this is completely separate from the issue of whether file sharing should be legal or not.  All we’re talking about here is the legality of picking locks, not the legality of sharing files.

There is one huge difference between a door lock and a digital lock however:  A door lock is meant to keep others out, unless I invite them in.  I can open my door for them, even lend them a copy of my keys.  A digital lock, on the other hand,  is meant to keep others out–always–since “inviting them in” (distribution) is illegal.  So the technical problem is this: how can I have a key that allows me to copy my own audiobooks to any of my devices, but not to my friends’ devices?  It’s like asking: could we design a door that only lets me in and no-one else, whether I want them in or not?

Maybe I’m not smart enough to figure that one out, but so far, it seems that no one else has either.  That’s why we’re not given the keys to our own digital locks: because who knows what we might do with them.  Instead, the key is given to particular media players (yes, the box has the key) in the hope that we won’t be able to find it.  But as Cory Doctorow explained in 2007, that scheme is intrinsically flawed.  Not only that, but it kind of blows back up in the face of the those who put the lock there: If I can’t listen to the audiobooks I legally buy on the devices I own because of digital locks, I might as well just torrent an illegal copy that I’ll be able to use on any device. [5]

And so, now we have locks that can be picked by those with enough know-how, but we legislate against picking them (regardless of intent).  The logical conclusion, of course, is that digital locks are the wrong tool for the job, and maybe no other systematic modes of control exist. It is an interesting technological puzzle to solve, but the law, as it is currently being proposed, is flawed: the legality of picking locks–digital or not–should be based on intent so that lawful use should be permitted.


  1. Search Engine, Digitally Locked,
  2. Parliament of Canada, Bill C-11 Section 41,
  3. Parliament of Canada, Bill C-11 Section 29.22,
  4. Wikipedia, Lock Picking,
  5. Cory Doctorow, Pushing the impossible,
  6. Brent Matthew Lillard, Lock Picking,
    <> under CC By-Nc-Sa license.

One Response to “Digital locks picking”

  1. Wojtek said

    Sorry, Pat, but I don’t think you are right. People don’t feel electronic medias are as same things as a “physical” things. The feeling in our mind is different. I will never steal DVD in a shop but I don’t have a problem to watch illegally copied movie.
    Totally different issue is the price of electronic media, but it’s not a topic of this talk.

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