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With Dmitry, eBook Industry Might Inherit the Wind

by Matthew Arnold Stern

Update: Sklyarov was freed from prosecution under a deal with the federal government. He has returned to his native Russia. His company, ElcomSoft Co. Ltd. still faces charges and could be fined $2.25 million if convicted.

For the latest information about this case, visit any of the eBook news web sites including:

The case of arrested Russian programmer Dmitry Sklyarov reminds me of the case of teacher John T. Scopes. Sklyarov was arrested in 2001 by showing how Adobe's eBook copy protection can be hacked. Scopes was arrested in 1925 by showing how man evolved from apes. The struggles over evolution and piracy are not as different as they seem. Both struggles are over long-standing core beliefs, and both have outcomes that can change culture and society forever. 

The wars over evolution and piracy are both between two highly polarized, diametrically opposed forces that have deeply emotional and unbending commitments to their respective causes. Scopes found himself pressed between those who supported the theory of evolution and those who oppose it as unbiblical -- a struggle that still rages today. Sklyarov also finds himself in the middle of a raging struggle: one between those who believe that "information must be free" and those who have zero-tolerance for the piracy of intellectual property. In such battles, there appears to be no middle ground. In the war over piracy, we need to find one. Failing to do so would threaten the future of technology and eventually injure those who piracy foes are trying to protect.

As a writer, I am naturally concerned about the piracy of intellectual property. I want assurance that my work will be protected. I'm not just concerned that someone would copy my work and not pay for it, I also worry about people plagiarizing it or appropriating it and claiming it as their own. This is why creative people like me depend on the copyright law. Copyright has enabled artists, musicians, authors, software developers, and other creative people to make a living through our craft. By giving us the security to work, we have been able to enrich and enlighten society.

Not only do we need protection, we also need avenues through which we can offer our work to the public. The Internet has been a breakthrough for artists who have never had the opportunity to make their work available to the public. Thanks to MP3, musicians whose demo tapes have been buried in some A & R department's storage closet can find an audience by posting their music on the Web. eBook technology offers the same opportunity for writers. Instead of letting our manuscripts languish in some slush pile, we can be publishers ourselves and market directly to the public. Or, we can have our work be published by the several new Web-based ePublishers who can try new authors without the financial burdens of paper-based publishing. 

However, the eBook is still in its infancy and hasn't caught on with the general public the way MP3 has. There are too many barriers to the wider acceptance of eBooks: no clear standards, expensive reader hardware, and limited readability. Now, we throw in the whole issue of anti-piracy. The anti-piracy features of eBook software make it difficult to give eBooks as gifts, loan books temporarily to friends, copy a portion for personal reference -- all things that you can legally do with paper books within fair use guidelines. Now, we find that these features can be defeated anyway. What does this do to the acceptance of eBooks, both by readers and authors? Do we really need something else to undermine the credibility of a technology that is already struggling to gain acceptance?

So, how do we protect the rights of us writers without destroying what can be a great opportunity for publication? How do we balance authors' rights to protect their work, publishers' rights to profit from their books, and readers' rights to enjoy and use the books they purchase?  And, what should be done with Dmitry Sklyarov?

I believe there is a middle ground in the struggle over piracy, just as there is a middle ground over evolution. On the issue of evolution, there are many theologians and scientists who see no conflict between evolution and faith in God. Likewise, there can be a balance between those who want access to music, writing, and other creative works and those who want to protect their rights to create it.

We first have to realize that no amount of anti-piracy measures will stop hackers from duplicating software. When I worked for a Commodore 64 software company in the 1980s, software publishers kept coming out with new methods of copy protection -- and every day, someone would come out with a new way to crack them. At the time, breaking copy protection was a necessity because there was no other way to make a backup in case the original disk was damaged. Users need to be able make copies of eBooks at least for backup use, which is why Sklyarov developed his software in the first place. If users make extra copies to send to friends -- there might be no technical way for us to prevent that, just as there is no technical way to prevent people from making photocopies of paper books today. Perhaps eBooks can offer a way for recipients of these copies to send payment to the publisher or author -- a kind of electronic tip jar. We also need fair enforcement of our existing copyright laws. We should not single out individuals for pointing out flaws of the system.

Like the conflict over evolution, the conflict over piracy is between determined forces who are unwilling to compromise -- but a compromise must be found. The consequences for technology, art, and society as a whole are too great.

The struggle over evolution was portrayed in the classic play and movie, Inherit the Wind. We should remember the passage from Proverbs that provided the name of that work: "Those who trouble their own house shall inherit the wind."  The struggle over anti-piracy could doom the infant eBook industry and the future of copyright protection.   

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