Digerati discontent

More on the DMCA and the Sklyarov situation at www.freeskylarov.org and www.boycottadobe.com.
Computer programmer Erin Quinlan carries a carefully coded protest sign: “DMCA owns you!”

“People will look at my nice and sinister sign and think, ‘The DMCA owns me. What’s the DMCA? What is that thing that owns me?’ “ Quinlan, 27, says. He’s squinting a bit in the sun, standing with his sign in front of the Bruce Thompson Federal Building in Reno. “And maybe they’ll look it up and do some research.”

If you don’t want to do research, though, Quinlan says he’ll explain.

DMCA stands for Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a federal law passed in 1998 at the behest of technology giants who feared for their copyrighted wares in this brave new digital economy. Computer literate folks, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, long protested the legislation.

But the recent arrest of a Russian cryptographer in Las Vegas gave the EFF and other groups fodder for their outrage.

The FBI arrested Dmitry Sklyarov after he presented his research at an information technology industry conference in Las Vegas last week. Sklyarov revealed that software maker Adobe Corporation’s e-book product has weak security architecture. Sklyarov works for a Russian company, Elcomsoft, that sells a decoder for the e-books.

Adobe can’t do much about the Russian company. But when Sklyarov addressed the conference with his findings, Adobe asked the FBI to arrest him, citing the DMCA.

Quinlan is full of analogies about why it’s bad for the government to arrest a software engineer just for explaining a software flaw.

“If I gave a lecture on opening padlocks with bent coat hangers, I’m not doing anything wrong,” Quinlan says. “I’m not breaking into anyone’s house. I’m not stealing anything.”

Under the DMCA, it’s illegal, Quinlan says, to back up software or to develop a program that can convert files from other programs. For example, if he wrote a new word processing program with filters that could import files created in Microsoft Word, that kind of “reverse engineering” of another company’s software is illegal under the DMCA.

In other logic, you’d think a computer software developer like Adobe would be glad to discover any security flaws in their wares. This reminds Quinlan of another analogy.

“If I built a car and it blew up all the time, I’d want people to tell me that it blew up all the time,” he says. “Not just to avoid lawsuits, but because blowing up people is not cool.”

He means this sincerely.

Folks from Adobe were supposed to meet with the EFF this week. The Northern Nevada protest Monday was organized by Sam Phillips, network administrator at Aztech Cyberspace in Reno, and independent Reno computer consultant Scott Underwood. Their main goal—to see a fellow software engineer, not a “bad hacker,” get out of jail.

“You wouldn’t be arrested for any other kind of copyright violation,” Underwood says.

"The DMCA is a law that shouldn’t be a law," Quinlan says. "And there’s a guy in jail, a guy with a family, who shouldn’t be in jail. What he did wasn’t a crime."