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Adobe: Free the Russian programmer

In the wake of worldwide criticism, Adobe Systems agrees to withdraw from a case charging a 27-year-old Russian programmer with copyright violations.

In the wake of worldwide criticism, Adobe Systems agreed Monday to withdraw from a case charging a 27-year-old Russian programmer with violations of the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

A day after he gave a speech at the Def Con hacking conference, ElcomSoft employee Dmitry Sklyarov was arrested and charged by the FBI under the criminal provisions of the DMCA, which prohibits trafficking in software and devices that break the informational locks on digital content.

Sklyarov is one of the authors of a program known as the Advanced eBook Processor that strips the copy protection from Adobe's eBook format and converts the files to unprotected PDF format. A conviction could yield five years in prison and fines of up to $500,000.

"The prosecution of this individual in this particular case is not conducive to the best interests of any of the parties involved or the industry," Colleen Pouliot, general counsel for Adobe, said in a statement. "Adobe will continue to protect its copyright interests and those of its customers."

Adobe backed down from the case after protesters in several U.S. cities demanded the release of Sklyarov and after a Monday meeting with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital civil liberties group that agreed to represent Sklyarov.

"In a large part, this is in response to the public outcry," said Robin Gross, an EFF staff attorney working on the case.

However, Gross quickly warned that the fight is not over; Sklyarov will remain in jail until the charges are dropped by the U.S. government.

"It is not a done deal by a long shot," she said. "He was charged by the U.S. Attorney's office, and they are the ones that have to release him."

Adobe's decision now puts the pressure on the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of California and on President Bush's candidate to head the FBI, Robert S. Mueller III, Gross said.

"It is very persuasive and very powerful that the original plaintiff request that the charges be repealed and the case dropped," she said. "It makes little sense for taxpayers to be funding this when even the original plaintiffs are calling for his release."

Gartner analyst Alan Weintraub and James Lundy say Sklyarov's arrest represents the lengths to which content owners will go to protect their copyrights.

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A representative of the attorney's office could not be reached for comment Monday evening.

Though Sklyarov's potential release would remove what could have been a critical test of the DMCA, Gross said the important thing was to get Sklyarov, now in his eighth day in federal custody, back home to his family in Russia.

"Our real issue is to get Dmitry out of jail," she said. "He is very scared. He is not interested in picking a big fight."

She added that the lesson of Sklyarov is likely not lost on other programmers. "His arrest says you can put computer programmers in jail for creating software that somewhere down the line could be used to make a copy of a program or digital book."

For Adobe's part, the episode has not been a total loss, either. Pouliot stressed that the offending software is no longer for sale in the United States.

"From that perspective, the DMCA worked," she said.