Mesopotamian boundary stones: the DRM of pre-history

Sarah Jeong had me standing up and cheering with her comparison of kudurrus — the ancient Mesopotamian boundary stones used to mark out territorial land-grants — and the way that laws like the US DMCA protect digital rights management systems.

Kudurrus spelled out rights and limitations that most people agreed with (who owned which land), but also imposed divine curses on those who broke the law. You would still be punished for breaking the law, but you'd also face divine retribution for violating the kudurrus' edicts.

In the same way, breaking copyright law is already against the law, and people who break copyright law face legal liability. But laws like DMCA 1201 protect DRM itself: if you pirate a DVD you're a pirate; if you break the DRM on the DVD to pirate it, you're a pirate twice over. Proponents of the DMCA argue (in court, even!) that breaking DRM is a crime even if you don't violate copyright law, so breaking DRM on a DVD just to move its contents to your computer or mobile device (legal activities) is illegal, because you have to break DRM to do it.

But kudurru could be altered with official sanction, just like the Librarian of Congress can sanction DRM-cracking for security research.

This example, on display in the British Museum, dates back over three thousand years. It's still got the images carved on it, but the rest of it is chipped away to be perfectly smooth.

"Most kudurru have a cuneiform inscription giving details of the transfer of land, usually from the king or a high official to another official. It was protected by curses and the names and symbols of gods," reads the museum's placard describing the stone. "However, on this example, it appears that the text has been deliberately erased. This laborious process, here done very neatly, might imply that this was undertaken with the approval of the authorities and so presumably the gods."

There's nothing quaint or archaic about dragging out authority figures in flowy gowns to muck around with a magic rock so that people can move it without getting cursed. This is more or less how the law still works today, right down to the flowy gowns.

Before DRM, There Were Mesopotamian Boundary Stones
[Sarah Jeong/Vice]