That’s a lesson we’ve learned from the FBI’s arrest of Dmitry Sklyarov, an employee of Moscow-based ElcomSoft, a company that easily defeated the security of Adobe Systems’ PDF e-book.
Faced with bad press about its e-book weakness, Adobe reversed itself, calling on the FBI to release the programmer. Adobe, of course, hadn’t technically filed suit — it had lodged a complaint with the government. That actually prolonged the damaging headlines because only the US Attorney’s office, not Adobe, could decide to drop the case.
The arrest is of great interest to Windows programmers and users because of its clues about the future distribution of electronic content. If Adobe had pursued a low-key approach to ElcomSoft, few people would have learned about the problems with copyright protection. Now it’s a federal case.
Remarkably, the FBI’s own affidavit reveals the scope of Adobe’s problem. It quotes ElcomSoft’s web site: “Any eBook protection based on Acrobat PDF format, as Adobe eBook Reader is, is absolutely insecure just due to the nature of this format ... If one can open a particular PDF file or eBook on his computer it does not matter with what kind of permissions/restrictions, he can remove that protection by converting that file into ‘plain’, unprotected PDF.”
ElcomSoft sold a $US99 program that converts Adobe e-books to plain PDF files. The company argues that it set the price higher than the cost of any e-book to discourage copyright infringement, and that purchasers of an e-book have a right to print a hard copy, which eBook Reader cannot.
Kevin Nathanson, Adobe’s e-book group product manager, told me in an interview: “The encryption routine itself is extremely robust. At the same time, the problem is that someone wants to read the file, and that means it has to be decrypted.” It’s trivial at that point to convert an e-book to PDF.
Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is helping Sklyarov, criticises the “unbalanced” 1998 DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) that has been used in this and other cases. “Copyright violation is illegal and it remains illegal,” Cohn says. “[ElcomSoft’s] tools have legitimate as well as illegitimate uses.”
The damage is immense. Alan Cox, a British citizen, resigned from the board of the Usenix (Advanced Computing Systems Association) body, saying, “It is not safe for non-US software engineers to visit the United States.” America, supposedly the land of the free, has become a place where intellectuals fear arrest. And for what? To protect some pathetically weak code.
By the time you read this, Sklyarov may have been freed. But the next time an emperor is shown to have no clothes, the FBI may be arresting a programmer you know. Don’t think I’m joking.
Livingston’s latest book is Windows Me Secrets (IDG Books). Send tips to Brian Livingston.