Putting a lock on e-books
A new cold war looms over your right to read
By Siva Vaidhyanathan
NEW YORK, July 19 - Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese
President Jiang Zemin were in the news this week, signing a treaty of
"friendship and cooperation," spurred by their growing animosity
toward the United States. America has always assumed the moral high
ground over the way China and Russia trample the rights of their
citizens to free expression. So it's pretty embarrassing that U.S.
officials have arrested a Russian software engineer and charged him
with a violation of a law he might have broken while working in Moscow
- if he broke a law at all.
THE FEDERAL Bureau of
Investigation Monday detained Russian software engineer Dmitri
Sklyarov after he gave a speech about encryption at Defcon, an annual
hacker convention in Las Vegas.
Sklyarov, a programmer for the
Moscow-based company ElcomSoft, was about to board a plane at the Las
Vegas airport when federal agents accosted him. The FBI had a warrant
issued last month from Federal District Court in San Francisco that
charged Sklyarov with a criminal violation of the Digital Millennium
Copyright Act (DMCA).
After his arrest, Sklyarov was
being held without bail in a Las Vegas jail. Officials were planning
on transferring him to San Francisco soon.
THE NEW COLD WAR
The old Cold War is over. Welcome
to the new Cold War. It's not political. It's corporate. It's
not ideological. It's pragmatic. It's not martial. It's digital.
What's at stake are not lives. They are electronic books.
Sklyarov made the mistake of
revealing weaknesses in an encryption scheme that the software company
Adobe employs in its electronic book reading program. His speech over
the weekend outlined just how weak the Adobe system is, and how easy
it is to crack.
But talking about decryption was
not his crime. Sklyarov was arrested for composing the software that
unlocks the Adobe eBook Reader encryption system. His software turns
protected digital eBook files into the common and easily accessible
Portable Document Format (PDF). Until recently, Sklyarov's company
sold copies of the decryption software, called Advanced eBook
Processor, for $99.
Adobe has been battling
Elcomsoft for months. Adobe had to withdraw and improve its eBook
Reader at least once before to impede decryption. A software arms race
was imminent. Adobe would try to strengthen its defenses. Then
Elcomsoft would quickly find a way to get past its rudimentary
encryption scheme again Š and so on. Adobe has opted to employ the
service of lawyers and federal agents instead of better engineers.
This is the second case of a
person being charged with a criminal violation of the DMCA, which
became law in 1998. The most onerous provision of the act makes it
illegal to circumvent any protection measure that a copyright holder
puts around digital files to regulate access.
Most of the controversies about
this law have been civil cases. Journalists for the hacker magazine
2600 have been fighting an injunction in federal court that prevents
them from linking to web sites that carry code that would circumvent
access control software on digital video discs. And more recently,
Princeton computer science professor Edward Felten was threatened with
legal action when he announced plans to discuss his encryption
research that dealt with digital watermarking of music files.
In both these civil cases the
mere threat of enforcement of the DMCA stifled free speech. The
Slyarov case is different, though. Elcomsoft is a for-profit venture
that sold its product. Felten and 2600 were just doing their jobs as
scholars and journalists.
LAW, UNFAIR ADVANTAGE
The law is clear. If you
traffic in anticircumvention devices for profit, you have committed a
federal crime that might cost you up to $500,000 and five years in
prison. So the FBI and federal attorneys had no choice. Adobe wanted
this man arrested. So they had to arrest him.
The problem is
the law itself. When Congress considered the DMCA in 1998, it did so
recklessly. Some public interest advocates warned at the time that the
law was too strong, that it would stifle research, free expression,
scholarship, teaching, and even commerce in new technologies that had
yet to emerge. But Congress paid little mind to public interest
concerns at the time. They were busy making the digital world safe for
established software companies and movie studios.
Now, after several embarrassing
high-profile cases, Congress must realize it made a big mistake by
giving so much power to a handful of companies and taking away
important rights from so many more users.
PROTECTING ESTABLISHED BUSINESS
What makes some
programmers good guys and others bad guys? Well, to be on the right
side of the DMCA, one should be established and American. One must
have already rolled out a product and hired some good lawyers. To try
to sell a new product that might disrupt the market for an established
product could be a crime. Instead of forcing Adobe to make a better
product, the DMCA lets it ride with an inferior one. The DMCA was
intended to encourage innovation. Instead, it stifles it.
Still, Sklyarov and Elcomsoft did
not commit any crimes while visiting the United States. What Sklyarov
did, he did in Russia, which has no such law. It sure could look like
his arrest was a strike against non-American software firms, a nasty
The United States adopted the
DMCA after a 1997 meeting of representatives of 127 nations gathered
in Switzerland to draft the World Intellectual Property Organization
(WIPO) treaty. At the behest of media industries, delegates strove to
standardize and strengthen copyright protection globally. They hoped
to provide strong incentives for companies to roll out digital
products with confidence. And they hoped to change the cultures of
some corners of the globe where copyright laws did not seem to matter
much. Fortunately, the world is not standardized yet. Canada and the
European Union are currently debating revising copyright laws to
conform to the WIPO treaty. And many other nations will take years to
institute provisions like the DMCA. And in some areas, the United
States has more user-friendly, democratic copyright provisions.
But every effort to standardize
and globalize meets strong resistance from those who suspect they
might come out on the short end of such processes. So it should come
as no surprise that Russian software engineers are willing to take
advantage of legal differences between nations to try to get a
foothold in the global economy. This is not going to be the last of
these battles. Nor will Sklyarov me the last person jailed without
bail for the crime of being a good programmer who decided to visit Las
THE E-BOOK REVOLUTION
The Sklyarov case is the latest
chapter in the rocky story of the electronic book market. Publishers
and distributors are betting that consumers are going to like reading
electronic files on their computers. They hope we appreciate the price
and convenience, the electronic indexing and bookmarking features, and
the fact that one laptop can tote a shelf full of textbooks with no
extra weight. Of course, there is no reason to believe people will
actually like these products. But there is a lot of faith out
Still, publishers would love to
be able to instantly deliver their wares in a format that many people
could use, that would prevent unauthorized reading and copying, and
would cost almost nothing for each additional copy.
Paper books are expensive to
produce. And publishers never know how many to print. Too often, they
get caught with an expensive surplus and take a big financial hit when
hundreds or thousands of unsold copies are returned from stores.
But the challenge of e-books is
encryption. Selling one unencrypted biology e-textbook to one student
in a 300-person class might result in just one sale if the other 299
get an unauthorized copy. Today, most students buy used books or pool
their resources to buy one book for many students and share
breathe easier if they knew that every reader had to buy her own copy
of a digital book. If they could tie a digital file to a particular
computer (and perhaps make it disappear after a certain time or number
of reads), they could recapture what they see as the "losses" of
the real book economy - lending, re-reading, photocopying, and
reselling used books.
There are two dominant
encryption-enhanced "reader" formats on the market right now.
Adobe makes one and Microsoft makes another. Neither works with the
others' text files. Both readers are available at no financial
HIGH COST OF ENCRYPTION
But encryption comes at a high
cost to users nonetheless. When we buy encrypted products, we limit
what we can do with them. We sign away our rights of fair use. Music
companies this month began secretly shipping compact discs with copy
protection systems on them, thus preventing consumers from making
legal MP3 copies for their home computers and portable music players.
We can't tell which CDs will have the onerous code until we try to
exercise out rights.
While Russian and American programmers fight the encryption cold
war, we can decide as consumers not to support the arms race at all.
If the producers would tell us which products are encrypted, we could
If I want to
download and read the e-book, "Enterprise Network Security
Guidelines: Prevention and Response to Hacker Attacks," it would be
no problem. I would pay an online retailer $132 and it would come over
as an unencrypted PDF file. I could read it on my Macintosh G4 desktop
computer, or share the file with my PowerBook laptop and read it on
But if I want to download and
read "The Unofficial Business Traveler's Pocket Guide: 165 Tips
Even the Best Business Travelers May Not Know," I would be out of
luck. This file, which costs less than $10, only comes in the
encrypted Adobe Acrobat eBook Reader format.
And only Microsoft Windows
machines can use the reader. To read that file on my Mac, I would need
some decryption software, and I would be breaking the law just by
reading something I lawfully purchased.
Some day soon, Adobe might roll
out a Macintosh version of its reader. But my friends who use the
GNU/LINUX operating system are probably shut out of the e-book world
without decryption software like Advanced eBook Processor.
Fortunately, I can read PDF files
on my computer. So instead of buying any e-books that require
encryption-enhanced readers, I bought an unencrypted PDF copy of
Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" for less than $10. I also have
an old paper copy of George Orwell's "1984."
Let me know if you would like to
Siva Vaidhyanathan, a cultural historian and media scholar, is the
author of "Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual
Property and How it Threatens Creativity." He teaches information
studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.