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Jury convicts man in DMCA case

A Florida man who sold cards to get free access to DirecTV is found guilty of breaking the Digital Millennium Copyright Act--the first jury-trial conviction, a U.S. attorney's office says.

A federal jury has convicted a Florida man of violating the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, in the first jury-trial conviction under the controversial law, according to a U.S. attorney's office.

The Los Angeles jury found 38-year-old Thomas Michael Whitehead guilty on Friday of selling hardware that could access DirecTV satellite broadcasts without paying for them, according to the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles.

Whitehead, who was also known by his computer name "JungleMike," was convicted on one count of conspiracy, two counts of selling hardware that unlawfully decrypted the broadcasts, and three counts of violating the DMCA.

With the six felony convictions, Whitehead faces up to 30 years in federal prison and fines of as much as $2.75 million. Sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 26, 2004.

The DMCA, signed into law by President Clinton in 1998, made it illegal to circumvent commercial antipiracy software, among other provisions.

The government's first attempt to win a jury conviction based on the law ended in the acquittal of ElcomSoft. The Russian company's employee Dmitri Sklyarov became a cause celebre among hackers after he was arrested. Sklyarov had described his company's software for decrypting Adobe's eBooks software to attendees of the DefCon security conference.

In the Whitehead case, the jury found that the defendant had bought software that reprogrammed DirecTV access cards to circumvent their security features. He then sold reprogrammed DirecTV access cards nationwide, violating a DMCA provision that bans the dissemination of technology whose main purpose is to get around copyright protections.

Whitehead was first indicted as part of the FBI's "Operation Decrypt" undercover investigation, according to the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles. The operation, announced in February, targeted Whitehead and 16 other programmers suspected of selling wares that bypassed satellite TV systems provided by DirecTV and EchoStar's Dish Network.

Several other accused DMCA violators have pleaded guilty, according to the Computer Crimes Section of the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles.

Legal analysts predicted that Whitehead's convictions would fail to elicit support comparable to that seen for Sklyarov.

"The fact is that many people believe the DMCA is overreaching in the copyright area," said Evan Cox, an attorney with Covington & Burling in San Francisco who specializes in copyright issues. "But hacking a DirecTV feed simply to avoid paying for it is not going to arouse the sympathy that you got for hacking an eBook reader that let you put it on a different machine, or making copies for personal use."