Before DRM, There Were Mesopotamian Boundary Stones

A huge copyright nerd visits the British Museum.

These are kudurrus, ancient Mesopotamian boundary stones that were placed on the ground to demarcate the boundaries of land grants. A kudurru is inscribed with gods and kings, along with cuneiform that outlines legal rights, tax obligations, and magical curses.

If you tried to move the boundary stone as an unauthorized land grab, you would be cursed by the gods. If you tried to cheat on your taxes by messing with the writing on the kudurru, you would be cursed by the gods. And heaven forbid, if you tried to tamper with the curses, you were definitely getting cursed.

Thousands of years before the advent of digital rights management, the Mesopotamians were already practicing analog rights management, with a form of double liability that's parallel to DMCA section 1201.

Section 1201 makes it illegal to "circumvent technical protection measures"—in other words, it outlaws breaking DRM in order to violate copyright. Every three years, the Librarian of Congress clarifies a number of exemptions, such as unlocking cell phones from carriers, or breaking DRM on software in order to do security research. It doesn't mean that security research was copyright infringement before the exemption, it's just a clarification that means that it's definitely not copyright infringement now.

1201 creates double liability. It's already illegal to violate copyright; 1201 makes it also illegal to crack the DRM to violate the copyright in the first place. (There's a long and continuing policy debate—in the courts, academia, and even around the negotiation of international trade agreements—about whether it should be purely illegal to crack DRM, and whether or not there's an "underlying infringement.")

1201 is the magical curse on the boundary stone. It's already illegal to farm land that's not yours, or cheat on your taxes. But what people are really afraid of is getting cursed when they tamper with the stone.

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.

Like wizards, lawyers and judges speak words that end up substantively changing reality. For thousands of years, people have shaped their lives and actions around fear of kudurru magic and lawsuits, which when it comes down it, are pretty much the same.