Paper Cutters, Encryption, and the DMCA

A few guys down at the Cowtown Computer Congress hackerspace have done a wonderful job reverse engineering the Provo Craft Cricut Personal Electronic Cutter, and creating a C++ paper cutter library (libcutter) for controlling it. This means that anyone who can create a vector image on their computer, can use the Cricut to cut or plot their image with the device. Considering that these devices have been dropping in price (one of the hackers got one for $45 on Craigslist), this makes 2D CNC plotting readily available on the desktop.

However, there is a hitch. In order to send commands to the Cricut over USB, the commands must be encrypted. While that was an easy technical hurdle for the hackers at CCCKC, there is the larger legal hurdle that must be addressed. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) essentially makes it illegal for someone to break encryption on a device in order to access its internal functionality. This is known as the "anti-circumvention clause", and it's a real downer. Basically, it means that just because you bought and paid for a device, doesn't mean you own it.

This provision of the DMCA forces the developers of libcutter to distribute their incredible library without the encryption keys needed to make it actually work. However, the keys can be found elsewhere, if you know where to look.

This whole things just irks me. How can it be illegal to distribute integers? How can it be illegal to take apart the things you own? How can it be illegal to learn how something works? There just seems to be something wrong with the legal view of ownership, and not surprisingly, it's the little guys who find themselves out of luck.

The part that is particularly bothering, is that this provision of the DMCA was created to prevent people from "stealing" copyrighted material. However, in the case of the Cricut and libcutter, the violation allows users to use their own content instead of the copyrighted content from Provo Craft. We are trying to give people the ability to *not* use copyrighted content, but we are still violating the DMCA. That's just depressing.

Now, I'm not against Provo Craft. In fact, I think they have done a wonderful job creating a very useful machine. I know it's good work, because I have seen how they did it (if you want to see how they did it, check out the Cricut Hacks Wiki). I just want to be able to use their amazing machine for my own purposes. I see the Cricut as a tool I can own, and choose to use for whatever purpose I want. By comparison, if I choose to remove a screw with the back of a claw hammer, I am unlikely to receive a letter from Craftman's lawyers. While this seems obvious, there also seems to be a different viewpoint of the matter when applied to technology.

In the end, the developers of libcutter are not discouraged by the potential legal troubles. It's hard to stop hackers from doing what they do just because something is illegal. I think we can all look forward to having some really cool Cricut-using applications in the future, but you may have to search a little bit for encryption keys and binaries.

BONUS - Here's some cool stuff done with libcutter: