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Teen Acquitted in DVD Security Case

Norway ruling is a setback for Hollywood, which defends its wares against illegal copying. Defendant disabled disk encryption codes.

January 12, 2003|Doug Mellgren | Associated Press Writer

OSLO -- Hollywood didn't get its happy ending last week when a Norwegian court acquitted a teenager of digital burglary for creating and circulating online a program that cracks the security codes on DVDs.

The ruling, a blow to the entertainment industry's drive to curtail illegal copying of its movies, was a key test in how far copyright holders can go in preventing duplication of their intellectual property.

Jon Lech Johansen, 15 when he developed and posted the program on the Internet in late 1999, said he developed the software only to watch movies on a Linux-based computer that lacked DVD-viewing software.

"I'm extremely satisfied," Johansen said. "Most of those who have watched the case from the outside have said nothing criminal happened."

Johansen, now 19, said he would celebrate by watching DVDs using similar DVD-cracking software.

Head Judge Irene Sogn said people cannot be convicted of breaking into their own property. Sogn said prosecutors failed to prove that Johansen or others had used the program to access pirate copies of films.

"The court finds that someone who buys a DVD film that has been legally produced has legal access to the film. Something else would apply if the film had been an illegal ... pirate copy," the Oslo City Court said in its unanimous 25-page ruling.

The Motion Picture Assn. of America had no comment, spokeswoman Phuong Yokitis said from Washington.

The decision was the latest setback for the industry in its efforts to discourage digital distribution of its wares. A week earlier, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor lifted an emergency stay that had prohibited the posting of similar DVD decryption programs on the Internet.

And in March, a Dutch appeals court cleared KaZaA, a maker of computer software that lets people download music, movies and other copyright-protected material, of copyright-infringement charges.

Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard law professor who studies the Internet, doubted that the decision would discourage the industry's anti-piracy campaign.

"The fight over Johansen's program, DeCSS, was always more a symbolic fight," he said. "This is not the literal code that millions of Americans would use to copy Hollywood's treasures."

Nonetheless, the ruling signals that Hollywood cannot tell buyers of its products how they can be used, said Robin Gross of IP Justice, an organization that promotes more balance in applying intellectual-property laws.

"Now the people are beginning to say, 'Hey, wait a minute! We have some say in this,' " she said. " 'These are our DVDs and if we want to watch them on computers using the Linux operating system, we are well within our rights to do that.' "

Johansen became a folk hero to hackers, especially in the United States, where a battle still rages over a 1998 copyright law that bans such software.

The program he wrote is just one of many that can break the industry's Content Scrambling System, which prevents illegal copying but also prevents the use of legitimate copies on unauthorized equipment.

Charges against Johansen were filed after Norwegian prosecutors received a complaint from the MPAA and DVD Copy Control Assn., the group that licenses CSS.

Prosecutors asserted that the program, in effect, left film studios' property unlocked and open for theft. Johansen was charged with data break-in, not copyright infringement.

The decision is legally binding only in Norway, but it "will be referred to in other cases because there have not been many," said Haakon Wium Lie, a member of Electronic Frontier Norway.

The prosecution, which had called for a 90-day suspended jail sentence, confiscation of computer equipment and court costs, said it would decide soon whether to appeal.

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