Protest prompts Adobe to drop charges

Adobe Systems Inc. has dropped charges against a Russian programmer arrested for copyright infringement of its products, but the incident has nevertheless reinvigorated opposition to a digital-rights law that affects all PC users.

The software vendor said Monday it is dropping charges against jailed Russian programmer Dmitry Sklyarov. Protestors rallied in varying numbers in more than 20 cities Monday, urging sale of Adobe stock and a boycott of Adobe products.

Sklyarov was arrested in Las Vegas on July 16 after the conclusion of the Def Con hacker conference, where he had presented material on undoing Adobe's eBook encryption. The FBI arrested Sklyarov at the behest of Adobe, charging him with violating a provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act preventing the sale of tools designed to circumvent copy-control technology.

Sklyarov, a programmer for Moscow-based ElcomSoft, wrote Advanced eBook Processor, which converts files from Adobe's secure eBook Reader format to the more widely used PDF. The program is legal in Russia. Adobe's eBook format restricts users from manipulating files in several ways, including backing it up, printing it, or copying and pasting from it.

Deal Brokered

"I think that folks here (at Adobe) are becoming very sympathetic to the public outcry and not wanting to lose customers and let the situation escalate into an even grander international incident than it has already become," says Robin Gross, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, of Adobe's reversal.

The EFF, a leading cyber-rights organization, met with Adobe officials for more than four hours Monday before agreeing the EFF and Adobe would jointly recommend Sklyarov's release, and Adobe would withdraw its complaint, Gross says. The EFF initially joined the protests, but withdrew when Adobe agreed to meet.

"There were quite a few (protestors), and I think that had quite a bit of influence over the employees and negotiators," Gross adds. The government still needs to formally drop charges, but Gross expects that will occur and Sklyarov will be released.

Bill Scannell, a security consultant who organized the Adobe boycott with Peter Shipley, praised Adobe's decision.

"Adobe has done the right thing," said Scannell, who joined 43 protestors in Seattle, and said he was "happy with everything" about the response.

"People are looking for excuses to dump tech stocks," Scannell says. "Money is the only thing they understand. We could whine as much as we wanted, but until it hurts them getting money from my pocket, my mom's pocket, or your pocket, they aren't going to pay attention."

Fighting DMCA

The EFF and many of the protestors say they will return their attention to the DMCA itself.

"I hope that any company that even thinks of using the DMCA in the future, as a way to force people, will think twice about it," Scannell says.

The EFF objected when the measure was approved in 1998, Gross noted.

"The significance now is that we realize we need to turn our attention away from Adobe and towards the DMCA," Gross says.

Law student Robyn Wagner, marching with about three dozen protestors at Adobe headquarters in San Jose, says she worries that she may someday have to represent her programmer friends in court if the DMCA restrictions aren't loosened.

"The larger picture is the legality of the DMCA," Wagner says. She thinks the restrictions don't make much sense in America, where so many people write software for a living.

The protestors' bigger gripe is with the DMCA itself, agrees Kevin Hendrickson, another of the San Jose protestors, who describes himself as a "starving artist."

"I think we already have laws to protect copyrights," Hendrickson says. "Do not condemn us for making tools. It's like arresting someone for making a hammer."

Storming Headquarters

The demonstrations were of varied strength around the globe. Besides rejecting the DMCA as an affront to fair use, they complain that Adobe's copy-protection technology is inadequate, and that Sklyarov should not be punished for pointing out its flaws.

Don Marti, vice president of Silicon Valley Linux Users Group, led anti-Adobe chants by protestors waving signs in San Jose.

"Frankly, we're just mad. We're just disgusted with Adobe, and we don't want to be quiet," Marti says. "When you mess with the right to read, you set a lot of people off," he says.

More to the point, Adobe asked the FBI to take criminal action against someone when it should have been a civil action, Marti says.

"Imagine if an American programmer was arrested in Russia for doing something that is legal here," he says.

Def Con, a long-standing security conference that has drawn both hackers and security professionals, is supposed to be a neutral ground where ideas are exchanged, says Praveen Sinha, a freelance programmer who attended Def Con and joined the protest in San Jose.

"Having (the FBI) arrest (Dmitry) at a talk at a security conference -- that pushed me over the line," Sinha says. "We're trying to create an atmosphere of intellectual debate" at Def Con, he adds. "Adobe is threatening our right to educate ourselves."

Lively Rallies

Tech firm employee Justin Cheung was the lone San Francisco protestor. He attended Def Con and wanted to meet Sklyarov, and hoisted signs Monday to show his support.

"We are getting a lot of attention, especially in places like San Jose, where they were going to march to Adobe headquarters," Cheung says.

In Boston, more than 40 demonstrators from the Free Software Foundation, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and other local companies gathered to hand out flyers and give speeches urging Sklyarov's release. They hoisted signs that read "RIP Fair Use," "Free Dmitry," and "Adobe vs. Constitution." Some carried a coffin with the words "fair use" and the date October 20, 1998--when the DMCA was passed into law.

What will happen in 50 years, when no one uses Adobe's eBook program any longer and no one can access data stored in that format, asks C. Scott Ananian, a graduate student in computer science and an organizer of the Boston protest.

"Will our fair-use rights be preserved when we don't use paper anymore?" he asks. "It's not too late to repeal" the DMCA, he adds.

Mixed Ventures

Though Sklyarov was arrested for violating the DMCA in the United States, the president of ElcomSoft, Aleksandr Katalov, says in an interview with Russian Web site that Advanced eBook Processor is legal in Russia because the law requires consumers be able to make backup copies.

Still, ElcomSoft has raised a few eyebrows among the hacking and security community for another product they market, Advanced Direct Remailer -- a spamming program.

"In the hacking community, spamming is fairly frowned upon," notes Matt Clauson, a security consultant and Def Con attendee.

ElcomSoft's promotion of spam does make the company "a little more questionable" in his eyes. But ElcomSoft's other endeavors do not change Clauson's opposition to Sklyarov's arrest.

"I support the eBook product because it regards freedom of use for material under acceptable policies that [the public] has already been granted," he says.

(Contributing to this report were Sam Costello of the IDG News Service and staff members Kim Zetter, Anush Yegyazarian, Frank Thorsberg, Tom Mainelli, Eric Garner, and Seán Captain.)

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