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Washington Post: Jailed Under a Bad Law [Sklyarov and the DMCA]

Aug 22, 2001, 12:36 (19 Talkback[s])
"THE ARREST by federal authorities of a Russian computer programmer named Dmitry Sklyarov is not the first time the so-called Digital Millennium Copyright Act has led to mischief. It is, however, one of the most oppressive uses of the law to date -- one that shows the need to revisit the rules Congress created to prevent the theft of intellectual property using electronic media. Mr. Sklyarov, a graduate student in Moscow and an employee of a company called ElcomSoft, helped write a program that disables copy protections on the Adobe eBook Reader, a system designed to let people read book-length texts comfortably on computers. Writing the program did not violate Russian law, and ElcomSoft then made its program available over the Internet, provoking a fight with Adobe.

The trouble for Mr. Sklyarov was that under the digital millennium law, it is a crime in this country to distribute programs designed to frustrate copy protection schemes. ElcomSoft was attempting to sell the program over the Web in this country. Adobe complained about the ElcomSoft program to the FBI and mentioned that Mr. Sklyarov happened to be in Las Vegas giving a talk at a conference of hackers on the vulnerabilities of Adobe's systems. The bureau obligingly picked him up last month. He was finally released on bail in California this month.

The digital millennium law is troubling, since the same programs that can be used to pirate content commercially often have legal uses as well. It does not offend someone's copyright to make what is called "fair use" of proprietary material -- such as, for example, quoting passages from texts or playing snippets of music. Programs to break copy protection schemes can be used to facilitate fair use, as well as infringing uses of copyrighted material. Simply banning the dissemination of such programs, without reference to the purpose of the dissemination, inhibits the use of intellectual property far more broadly than does the copyright law itself."

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