Protesters declare war on copyright law

As a Russian programmer faces 25 years in jail, his supporters become more vocal on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act
Written by Robert Lemos, Contributor

Supporters backing Dmitry Sklyarov, the Russian programmer accused of five counts of copyright infringement, declared war on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act at a fund-raiser for Sklyarov's legal defence on Wednesday.

"This is a war being waged by copyright interests who see each opportunity on the Internet as an opportunity to change the meaning of copyright law," said Lawrence Lessig, director of Stanford University's Center for Internet and Society and author of Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace.

"For 200 years, copyright law has been a small limited monopoly granted from the government to the people," he continued. "It has never been understood as a permanent property protection giving them absolute control of their work."

The DMCA, passed in 1998, prohibits people from possessing or trafficking in devices that can be used to circumvent copyright -- even if they don't plan illegal action once they've broken the code.

On Tuesday, the US Attorney for the Northern District of California indicted Sklyarov and his employer, Moscow-based Elcom, of one count of conspiracy, two counts of trafficking in a program to circumvent copyright protections, and two counts of marketing a program designed to circumvent copyright protections. The charges stem from software Sklyarov created that strips copy protections from Adobe Systems' e-Book electronic publishing format.

At the event, the Russian programmer made some brief comments in a heavy accent, thanking his supporters before being whisked away by his lawyer.

On Thursday, Sklyarov, 26, and Alexander Katalov, the president of Elcom, both pleaded not guilty to the charges. Each charge carries a penalty of up to $500,000 and as many as five years in prison.

"Why lock this guy up for 25 years? That's 25 years!" Lessig told the crowd. "This has got to be a wake-up call about how distorted this system has become."

Almost 200 Linux enthusiasts, programmers and digerati attended the fund-raiser, held by two-month-old start-up AllSeer in a five-storey warehouse on the edge of the now depopulated Multimedia Gulch in San Francisco. Many came from the LinuxWorld trade show being held at the nearby Moscone Center. Others are fixtures of the digital rights movement.

The turnout was one of the best at such an event to date, lending credence to the movement opposing the DMCA.

"It's been interesting watching the progression of people interested in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act," said Cindy Cohn, attorney and legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "When it was passed in 1998, there was the EFF and some libraries and a few other people."

The real-world application of the law has convinced many people to take a stand against the DMCA, Cohn said. The act makes it illegal to break technological copy protections or create software or devices that do so, even if the reason for copying is allowed by fair use.

When online hacker magazine 2600 fell foul of the law, a few more people became interested. Last April, the Recording Industry Association of America threatened legal action under the law to stop a Princeton University computer science professor from delivering a research paper on the weaknesses of the music industry's copyright schemes. The move garnered even more supported for opponents of the law, Cohn said.

This time, complaints from Adobe Systems brought in the FBI to investigate the Russian as a prelude to arresting him at the DefCon hacking conference in Las Vegas.

While Adobe has since recanted its role after a closed-door session with members of the EFF, free-software guru Richard Stallman told the fund-raiser attendees that the company has not done enough.

"We shouldn't have to have this fund-raiser," he said to enthusiastic applause. "If Adobe is serious about freeing Sklyarov, Adobe should pay for his defence."

Adobe did not immediately respond to requests for comments.

The momentum behind the movement is heartening, said Stanford's Lessig. "This is the beginning of a revolution," he told the crowd.

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