Russian's arrest latest in copyright fight

A small Russian software company learns that Adobe doesn't pull its punches when an engineer is arrested for creating a program to crack the eBook format.

Robert Lemos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Robert Lemos
covers viruses, worms and other security threats.
Robert Lemos
3 min read
Attention, software pirates, security researchers and those out to prove a point: Adobe Systems doesn't pull its punches.

That's the lesson Dmitry Sklyarov, a Russian software programmer, learned Monday when FBI agents arrested him in Las Vegas for allegedly publishing a program that removes the security protections from Adobe eBook files. The bureau said such activity was a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Sklyarov, who has been moved to San Jose, Calif., for trial, is the latest casualty in a fight between software maker Adobe and Elcom, a 20-person company in Moscow.

The jailed programmer is one of the authors of the Advanced eBook Processor, an application designed to strip various security measures from Adobe's eBook format, a function that Elcom claims is necessary to allow backups required by Russian law and that Adobe claims is tantamount to software piracy.

"Adobe would like to make great money on the eBook market but used an absolutely improper format for that: PDF," Vladamir Katalov, managing director of Elcom, said in an e-mail interview with CNET News.com. That's "really nice, but not secure. And by pushing it, they simply create a lot of trouble (for) publishers and authors."

The jailed programmer Sklyarov had outlined problems with Adobe eBook and PDF security in a paper presented at the Def Con hacker convention.

Elcom's claim that the company had benign intentions is dodging the issue, said Adobe spokeswoman Susan Altman Prescott.

"The truth is that piracy is not a new issue, and copy protection of digital content is not a new issue," she said. "No software on the market is 100 percent secure against a determined hacker. We are not new to this business. We understand the nature of copyright violation and how to prevent it."

Sklyarov's arrest comes three weeks after Adobe sent notices requesting that Elcom stop selling the program and demanding that Verio, Elcom's Internet service provider, disconnect the company's Web site.

The notice sent to Elcom on June 25 gave the company five days to remove the software from its site, but Verio removed the site the next day. While Elcom's Katalov said the company complied with Adobe's demands--selling fewer than 10 copies of its program before the software was pulled--its credit card service was soon suspended as well.

On June 26, according to the affidavit filed in the Northern District of California, Adobe requested an investigation by the FBI into Elcom's activities. After several demonstrations that the program did, indeed, remove the security of eBook files, FBI agent Daniel O'Connell filed his affidavit July 11, a day before registration opened at Def Con.

Adobe, for its part, would not confirm its role in the investigation.

"The issue is not one of Adobe vs. a software hacker," said Adobe's Prescott. "At issue is copyright protection for artists and publishers."

While Prescott first portrayed Adobe as somewhat removed from the investigation, she later acknowledged that the company "brought it to the attention of the U.S. government." The FBI affidavit, however, shows that Adobe seems to be the only victim in the case and had at least three people working on gathering information about Elcom's software for investigators.

Only the second case to be filed under the criminal provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the strongest law to date supporting publishers of copyrighted content, the trial could be an important testing ground for the DMCA, said Jennifer Granick, clinical director of Stanford University's Center for Internet and Society.

"It's the DeCSS case but criminal," she said, referring to the New York case that is trying Web sites that linked to code that could break the encryption on DVD movies. "The fact that it is someone from outside the country highlights the problems with the law, because this is the U.S. enforcing its laws on another country."

Granick believes the case highlights an important weakness in the DMCA.

"Companies are allowed to take fair use away with our technology," she said, "but we are not allowed to take fair use back with technology."