Teen on trial in DVD hacking case

Norway is prosecuting a teen for allegedly violating a law that bans the circumvention of a computer security system without permission.

Jon Johansen, a Norwegian teenager, goes on trial Monday for allegedly bypassing DVD anti-copying technology.

At the prompting of the Norway and U.S. entertainment industries, Norwegian prosecutors indicted Johansen in January for allegedly violating a law that bans the circumvention of a computer security system without permission. The trial in Norway is expected to last a week. If found guilty, Johansen faces up to two years in prison.

Johansen became an Internet icon three years ago after he co-authored the DeCSS utility that unwraps the copy protection found on DVDs, known as Content Scramble System (CSS). Programmers wanted a way to watch movies on their Linux computers, and there was no authorized way to do so at the time.

But DeCSS can also be used in the piracy of DVDs, and this enraged the movie studios that belong to the Motion Picture Association of America. They sued U.S. Web site 2600, which distributed the DeCSS utility, and won a victory last year when a federal appeals court ruled that the utility violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Johansen testified at that trial in New York in mid-2000. At the time, Johansen said that he and two other programmers had created the DeCSS utility and that he was a member of the Masters of Reverse Engineering hacking group.

The lawsuit against 2600 cemented Johansen's status as a cause celebre. Around the time the suit was filed in January 2000, officials from Norway's Department of Economic Crime hauled Johansen to a local police station for questioning. At the time, he was not charged. But the idea of a programmer being interrogated--and having his home searched and computers seized--galvanized the grassroots tech communities in the United States and Europe.

In the case now on trial, Johansen has been charged with violating a section of the Norwegian Criminal Code that punishes "any person who by breaking a protective device or in a similar manner, unlawfully obtains access to data or programs which are stored or transferred by electronic or other technical means."

It is not clear how that section applies to writing and using a DVD-decryption utility.

In an essay, Norwegian law professor Jon Bing said it is uncertain whether the law applies "to a situation where someone breaks a code or other security measure in order to access material on a device of which that person is the owner."

Bing added: "The question is, in academic, legal terms, 'interesting,' and one may argue that the uncertainty itself may be something which one would like to settle through a test case."

The U.S. DVD Copy Control Association and the Norwegian Motion Picture Association lobbied for the prosecution of Johansen and his father, Per Johansen.