Jeff Elkins: Hollywood Hegemony

Foreshadowing worse to come, last summer a Russian national was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for supposedly violating provisions of a United States federal copyright law. The 27-year-old programmer was arrested on July 16 and held in jail until August 6, when he was released on $50,000 bail. He was only recently allowed to return home to Russia.

The FBI arrested Russian software engineer Dmitri Sklyarov after his speech about encryption at Defcon, an annual hacker convention in Las Vegas. Not just encryption in general, but specific details regarding Adobe’s encrypted PDF files and how to defeat the encryption. This was judged a federal crime under the provisions of the controversial 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Sklyarov's case was the first time a programmer was jailed simply for creating and distributing software. The young software developer faced up to 25 years in prison under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in the first criminal prosecution brought under the highly controversial statute which forbids distributing technology or information that can be helpful in bypassing technological restrictions.

In effect, Sklyarov was jailed for a thought crime.

Now the long arm of US intellectual property law has reached into Norway, coercing the authorities of the Norwegian Economic Crime Unit (ШKOKRIM) into charging Jon Johansen for creating software called DeCSS in 1999 when he was 15 years old.

The arrest was made at the behest of the Motion Picture Association of America by ШKOKRIM, the Norwegian law enforcement agency with jurisdiction over economic crimes.

So, what did this DeCSS program do? Was it a horrible virus that wreaked destruction on unsuspecting computers? Was it a software tool intended to promote terrorism?

Well, no.

Young Mr. Johansen happened to be running the open source Linux operating system on his computer and wanted to watch legally purchased DVD movies on it. Unfortunately, DVD viewing software is only available for the Microsoft Windows and Apple Macintosh computer systems. Never dreaming that he was transforming himself into a programming analog of Osama bin Laden, he proceded to write a computer program that plays DVD discs.

His efforts were rewarded with the prestigious Karoline Prize. This national prize is awarded yearly to a Norwegian high school student with excellent grades who makes a significant contribution to society outside of school.

Upon turning 18, his efforts were further rewarded with a booby prize. ШKOKRIM Chief Prosecutor Inger Marie Sunde indicted Johansen for violating Norwegian Criminal Code section 145(2), which outlaws breaking into another person's locked property to gain access to data that one is not entitled to access.

The MPAA also requested ШKOKRIM charge Johansen with contributory copyright infringement; however prosecutors declined. Johansen's trial could start before summer 2002.

Excuse me? Johansen didn't steal DVDs, he simply wanted to watch them on a platform that wasn't 'approved' by the Masters of Intellectual Property in Hollywood, USA.

Intellectual property law has long since crossed any reasonable boundry, when it's used to attack hapless customers and programmers. There are grave questions regarding whether current electronic data will be even accessible by future generations as computing platforms evolve. In a grotesque perversion of copyright laws originally intended to protect artists of all stripes and encourage artistic development, the tables have been turned to protect the revenue streams of huge corporations in perpetuity.

It's unfortunate that multinational corporations headquartered in the United States are at the forefront of efforts to criminalize thought. It's even more unfortunate that these corporations can easily reach out worldwide and cause the imprisonment of teenage software programmers.

These same IP fascists are currenty working on stealth programs to render musical compact discs unusable on unapproved platforms. Various 'copy-protection' schemes are being introduced that will prevent consumers from playing their CDs on computers and other platforms not 'approved' by Hollywood moguls.

Inger Marie Sunde and ШKOKRIM rather than telling the MPAA to go to hell, have caved in to corporate fascism. The people of Norway should be outraged that their national sovereignty has been raped by the MPAA with ШKOKRIM as a willing facilitator and accomplice. It may well be that the name of Inger Marie Sunde joins fellow Norwegian Vidkun Quisling in the annals of historical shame.


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