Pressure, protests mount to free Russian programmer

Russian programmer Dmitry Sklyarov, arrested for trafficking in illegal software tools, is still in jail and protests urging his release are continuing across the country Monday.

Sklyarov, employed by the Moscow firm ElcomSoft Co. Ltd., was arrested at the behest of Adobe Systems Inc. on July 16 after the conclusion of the Def Con convention in Las Vegas where he gave a presentation on electronic book security. Sklyarov is charged with trafficking in tools designed to circumvent copy control measures, an act made illegal under 1998's Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

The tool that caused Sklyarov to run afoul of the DMCA is Advanced eBook Processor, a program that can convert an Adobe eBook Reader document into the less secure, but more malleable Adobe PDF (Portable Document Format). If convicted, Sklyarov faces up to five years in jail and a US$500,000 fine.

Adobe's eBook format places restrictions on what a user can do with documents, preventing users from backing up, printing, lending or reselling them. Critics of the software charge that the DMCA restrictions limit the traditional consumer rights of fair use and first sale, and contradict the so-called fair use doctrine embodied in other U.S. copyright law. Under the fair use doctrine consumers have the right to make private, noncommercial copies of copyright works, as well as quote from limited sections of them. The first sale doctrine also allows consumers to resell items that they have legally purchased.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) cyber-rights group has been at the forefront of the "Free Sklyarov" movement, organizing protests and meeting with the involved parties. The EFF had briefly dropped out of the protests after both Adobe and the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California (the office handling Sklyarov's prosecution) agreed to meet with the group to discuss the case.

Though Adobe changed its position after meeting with the EFF and is now calling for Sklyarov's release, a Friday meeting with the U.S. Attorney's office broke no new ground, according to the EFF. After the meeting with the U.S. Attorney's office, the EFF rejoined the protests and urged their continuation.

Sklyarov's arrest has sparked a wave of protest and demonstrations in over 21 cities worldwide. Protests, some attended by more than 100 people, were held in most major U.S. cities Monday, and were scheduled for Tel Aviv, Moscow and Munich earlier this month. Monday saw protests held, or planned, in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Minneapolis, Seattle and San Francisco.

In Boston, around 30 people gathered at the Park Street subway stop to hand out flyers, sign petitions and sing protest songs. A similar gathering last Monday drew around 40 people. Protest organizer C. Scott Ananian was optimistic about the groups' efforts.

"We're excited about the victories we've had this week," he said, alluding to Adobe's decision. "(We're) realizing its going to be a long haul" to get Sklyarov released, he said.

One protestor, Jon Cary, said he drove two and a half hours to come to the demonstration. Cary, of Lewiston, Maine, came to protest both the DMCA and to urge Sklyarov's release.

"The main thing I'm upset about is that they jailed a non-American citizen for something he did overseas," Cary said. Additionally, the DMCA poses a serious threat to fair use and must be repealed, he said.

To Cary, Adobe's change of heart "doesn't make a darn bit of difference." The company knows that even if they change their mind the government will continue with the prosecution, he said.

Cary, who runs a small graphics business producing promotional materials and CD booklet artwork, has switched all of his software from Adobe products to free software to protest the company's involvement with jailing Sklyarov, he said.

The Boston protestors -- as well as the EFF -- raised concerns about whether the DMCA and Sklyarov's arrest will lead to a chilling effect on research and cause foreign programmers and researchers to steer clear of the U.S.

Advanced eBook Processor is a legal application in Russia and protestors fear that other programmers could be arrested in the U.S. for writing programs that are legal in their countries. This situation has led to much speculation by protesters and IT professionals that future conferences that present material that could run counter to the DMCA will be held outside the U.S.

The Sklyarov case is the third in a series of high-profile cases involving the DMCA. The DMCA has been central to the DeCSS (De Contents Scramble System) case involving DVD (digital versatile disc) decryption software as well as that of Princeton professor Edward Felten's tangles with SDMI (the Secure Digital Music Initiative) about encryption and the publication of research findings The Boston protestors were optimistic that their work would help free Sklyarov.

"We're committed to doing whatever it takes," C. Scott Ananian said.

If Sklyarov is not freed, "I will be out here [next week]," he said.

The fight against the DMCA is a long battle, Ananian concedes, but one he hopes can be won. Jon Cary agrees.

"Hopefully somebody will do something," he said, looking out at the crowd of protestors and people going to lunch. "You've got to start someplace."

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