Dmitry Sklyarov, Arrested for Resisting eBooks

It's deja vu all over again. A Russian has been imprisoned for criticizing the ideology of a major state power. And, to compound his thought crimes, he's been helping people gain access to books. Is this a USSR horror story from the Stalin-Era vaults? A cautionary tale from Ray Bradbury?

Nope. Unless you've been buried under a rock for the past couple weeks, you know that it's taken directly from headlines in the good old USA. On Sunday, July 15, Russian graduate student researcher Dmitry Sklyarov was arrested by the FBI shortly after leaving hacker conference DefCon, where he'd delivered a fairly academic treatise on why Adobe's eBooks software isn't as secure as the company claims it is. Almost anyone with a bit of know-how could crack Adobe's encryption code.

Apprently, Adobe had been gunning for Sklyarov's company, Moscow-based Elcomsoft, for quite a while. They manufacture a program called Advanced eBook Processor, which, among other things, lets readers enjoy their legally-purchased eBooks from more than one computer -- in other words, it allows users to copy their eBook onto another machine. And that's what pissed Adobe off. Moreover, Sklyarov wouldn't keep his mouth shut. Like a responsible consumer advocate, he pointed out publicly that Adobe was lying when its spin doctors claimed the Adobe eBooks format was secure.

When Adobe execs heard Sklyarov would be in the country for DefCon, they tipped off the Feds, who arrested Sklyarov under one of the little-used criminal sections of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA). Under the DMCA, it's a crime to "manufacture products that circumvent copyright safeguards." The DMCA, however, is a U.S. law. According to Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) lawyer Robin Gross, who is aiding efforts to free Sklyarov from jail, this situation is particularly ironic because "much of Adobe's software would be illegal in Russia, because it doesn't allow you to make backups [of the books you bought]."

Gross and EFF representatives met with Adobe on Monday, July 23, urging the company to withdraw its complaint against Sklyarov. Late that afternoon, an exultant Gross spoke to me on the phone. "Adobe and EFF are issuing a joint statement calling for the release of Sklyarov," she said (see www.eff.org). "Adobe feels strongly that they want to protect copyrights and they respect the DMCA, but they agree that the criminal provisions in this case are inappropriate." Meanwhile, protests organized by hackers, software developers, and freedom-of-speech advocates were being held across the country on Monday.

Despite Adobe's statement and escalating protests (see www.freesklyarov.org and www.boycottadobe.org), Sklyarov is still in jail. Gross met with representatives from the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California on Friday, July 27. As of this writing, the DOJ has issued no decision about whether they'll pursue the case or not.

Regardless of the outcome, the fact that Sklyarov wasn't released quickly after Adobe dropped their complaint speaks volumes about future U.S. policies regarding electronic freedoms. Robert Mueller, the attorney who instigated Sklyarov's arrest, is about to go through confirmation hearings for his nomination for FBI Director. Perhaps Mueller is trying to play into the Bush regime's nostalgia for Cold War politics. The Russkies are out to undermine our beloved corporations and deliver free books to the unwashed masses!

Or maybe this is just another way the state has found to supress the distribution of books, long considered the most subversive medium for cultural communication. At the annual meeting of the American Library Association in June, librarians voiced their dismay at the DMCA and discussed their fears that they would be targeted for lawsuits from "copyright absolutists" just for loaning out books. But interestingly, Pat Schroeder, president of the Association of American Publishers, issued a statement supporting the DMCA. Like the execs at Adobe, representatives of publishing corporations are eager to uphold the idea that the free dissemination of books should be illegal.

The DMCA allows the state to censor books in a whole new way: instead of keeping books from the public based on their allegedly obscene or unsuitable content, the DMCA courts the goodwill of corporate America by outlawing any software that makes books free to the public. There are only about six major publishing conglomerates who control book content in the U.S. -- AOL/TimeWarner, Bertelsmann AG, NewsCorp, Pearson, Verlagsgruppe, and Viacom -- and the DMCA makes their authority over which books get circulated even more profound.

Obviously, the implications of the DMCA for the publishing world are far broader than keeping rampant copyright violators at bay. What the Sklyarov arrest demonstrates is that anyone who defies the corporate control of books -- whether that's control over their electronic form, or their publishing-house-dictated content -- can go to jail. And oddly enough for this digital age, the Sklyarov case reminds us that books are still a threat to state power, just as they have been for thousands of years.

Annalee Newitz freebooks@techsploitation.com is a surly media nerd who reads and reads and reads. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

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