A legal hack? Only in America

Will U.S. music and movie executives risk jail time if they start hacking into file-swapping systems, as a proposed bill would allow? Maybe if they travel to Australia.

Could record and music executives who take advantage of the hacking provisions of a proposed U.S. bill face stiff penalties if they travel to countries that outlaw computer break-ins? Possibly.

Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., has pushed a measure that would allow intellectual property owners to use technical measures to prevent copyright infringement. These measures include spoofing--the seeding of file-swapping networks with false versions of songs--and hacking into sharing systems.

The proposal has already come under fire from critics, who fear it would encourage corporate vigilantism. It may also put some entertainment industry folks squarely in the crosshairs of a complex web of inconsistent international and local laws that has already entangled executives, including former Yahoo CEO Tim Koogle.

For example, Australia's legal code contains a provision allowing a sentence of up to six months in jail if a person breaks into a computer system without legal authority. On Tuesday, Melbourne's The Age newspaper ran a story saying American executives could be banned from entering the country or face jail time if they employ the bill's hacking provisions.

Although the United States has similar laws outlawing computer break-ins, Berman's bill may shield intellectual property owners from prosecution in some cases if they're trying to protect their copyrighted works.

The issue is just the latest of example of the complicated jurisdictional problems the Internet has spawned as companies try to do business on a borderless Web. Courts and treaties have yet to reconcile conflicting local laws and mores on many topics, including free speech and copyright, creating an uncertain climate for companies and executives whose products may offend a certain country's population or government.

For example, Koogle could face jail time if he travels to France because the company's U.S. portal allowed posting of Nazi paraphernalia--which may violate France's war crimes laws.

In a separate case, Russian company ElcomSoft is facing criminal copyright charges in the United States related to making available software to crack Adobe's eBook. The technology is illegal in the United States, even though it is allowed in ElcomSoft's home country.

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