When reporters were threatened with law enforcement pressure and jail during the Watergate and Pentagon Papers cases, whole forests were felled in the pre-digital age with stories, books, even movies about courageous reporters fighting for the First Amendment against government oppression. Not a single reporter was jailed in those cases, not even for an hour, even though many broke federal and other laws in gathering the information they reported.
You won't see any discussion of Dmitri Sklyarov on Washington talk shows, the evening news, or the cover of the weekly newsmagazines. But he is stuck in jail.
He was arrested by the FBI two weeks ago for writing and selling a program that allegedly violates the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, just after giving a lecture detailing alleged weaknesses in Adobe's electronic book software.
There is hardly a single serious lawyer or constitutional scholar who doesn't see the dangers of this twisted use of the DMCA. "The DMCA outlaws technologies designed to circumvent other technologies that protect copyrighted material," wrote Lawrence Lessig in the New York Times this week. "It is law protecting software code protecting copyright. The trouble, however, is that technologies that protect copyrighted material are never as subtle as the law of copyright. Copyright law permits fair use of copyrighted material; technologies that protect copyrighted material need not. Copyright law protects for a limited time; technologies have no such limit."
Thus, cautions Lessig, a law professor at Stanford, when the DMCA protects technology that in turns protects copyrighted material, it can -- as in the Sklyarov case -- offer protection that is much broader than copyright law was meant to be. It criminalizes what would be legal under existing copyright law, including certain kinds of criticism and speech and research. This law is a top-to-bottom creation of entertainment companies working with their hired lawyers and lobbyists to curb the flow of information online for profit. It was not enacted in the public interest, or even in the best interests of copyright. Lessig and others have pointed out that Sklyarov's software violated no one's copyright, even if it runs afoul of the DMCA.
In the Sklyarov case, there are several noxious consequences. His arrest chills criticism of software, and of new technologies and the powerful companies that create them. It also undermines security -- one of the very things the DMCA is supposed to protect. How can weaknesses and flaws in security and encryption programs be discovered if they can't be shared, discussed or explored?
Example: a staple feature of newspaper reporters in big cities is to go to local airports annually and test security procedures by carrying toy guns, knives or unloaded weapons into terminals. Although they could technically be charged under federal laws prohibiting such behavior, they are not. These reporters are never prosecuted. That's because courts have repeatedly ruled that the reporters are carrying out activities that are protected by the First Amendment -- they are stretching or even breaking regulations on behalf of the public welfare. Within limits (most public safety grounds) courts have protected this kind of activity. Just because Sklyarov is a hacker doesn't mean he's not acting as a journalist, or entitled to journalistic protections.
This is a corporate perversion of the original intent of copyright law, meant to protect authors for a limited time so that they would have some financial incentive to generate ideas, which then entered the public domain so that they could receive the widest possible distribution. It was never the intention of the authors of American copyright law to sell ideas and intellectual property to greedy corporations in perpetuity, especially at the expense of free speech and the ability to criticize powerful institutions.
In April, Princeton Professor Edward Felten, an encryption researcher, received a letter from record industry lawyers warning him that a paper he was about to present at a hacker conference -- the paper described the weaknesses of an encryption system -- could subject him to criminal actions under the DMCA. Felten withdrew the paper, and is now the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the DMCA on First Amendment grounds.
None of this helps Sklyarov, who remains in jail. Were he a reporter for the Washington Post or New York Times challenging claims of Microsoft or Adobe or Disney, you can only imagine the media furor, and the pressure being brought to bear on politicians and federal officials to get him out. It would certainly be loud enough to help ensure his release while lawyers get to slug out what ought clearly to be a civil, not a criminal, issue.
The failure to connect his case with their own rights and traditions is a colossal media blunder, short-sighted and self-destructive. If the DMCA stands, and people like Dmitri Sklyarov are tossed into jail because they criticized the code, claims or procedures of powerful corporations or institutions based on research these institutions believe should remain private and proprietary, then the entertainment lobby will have done the unthinkable. They will have permanently altered the First Amendment and the protection it has always accorded free, controversial and offensive speech. And the Net will become a very different kind of place, not only for coders and hackers but for any person who loves the unique freedom it has offered for nearly a generation.