Russian Programmer Sklyarov Indicted in Closely Watched Hacker Case

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A federal grand jury has indicted Russian computer programmer Dmitry Sklyarov and his company on charges they violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, giving the government new ammunition in the controversial and closely watched case.

Sklyarov, 27, and ElComSoft Co. Ltd. of Moscow were charged Tuesday with five counts of copyright violations for writing and selling a program that lets users of Adobe Systems' eBook Reader get around copyright protections imposed by electronic-book publishers.

The indictment alleges that the programmer and the company conspired for "commercial advantage and private financial gain."

Each count carries up to five years in prison. Sklyarov could face a $250,000 fine and the company could be fined $500,000 if convicted.

Prosecutors said this is the first indictment, rather than a civil lawsuit, under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which forbids technology that circumvents copyright protections.

Sklyarov's attorney did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

The case has generated international protests since Sklyarov was arrested in Las Vegas on July 16. He was preparing to return home to Moscow after speaking at a computer security convention.

San Jose-based Adobe Systems had complained to the FBI that Sklyarov's employer, ElcomSoft Co. Ltd. of Moscow, was selling a program that let users manipulate Adobe's e-book software so the books could be read on more than one computer, or possibly transferred to someone else.

The program is legal in Russia, and Sklyarov supporters say his work merely restores the "fair use" privileges consumers traditionally enjoy under U.S. copyright law. Adobe dropped its support of the case on July 23.

Critics of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act say it is repressing free speech and legitimate computer research. Edward Felten, a Princeton University professor who found flaws in the recording industry's online music technology, is suing to have aspects of the law declared unconstitutional.

"If there are legal things to do with the tool, then you don't ban the tool, and you don't ban the person who came up with the tool," said Brad Templeton, chairman of the Electronic Freedom Foundation, an Internet civil liberties organization based in San Francisco.

In announcing the indictment against Sklyarov, however, federal prosecutors pointed out that the law targets people who circumvent copyright protections for financial gain -- and exempts educational institutions and encryption researchers.

The indictment said ElcomSoft was culpable because it sold the program for $99 in the United States through an online payment service based in Issaquah, Wash., and with a Web site hosted in Chicago.

Sklyarov, who is free on $50,000 bail but must remain in Northern California, is due in court for an arraignment Thursday. The hearing was originally scheduled for last week but was delayed because prosecutors and defense attorneys needed more time to discuss a possible plea bargain.

It was not immediately clear how ElcomSoft as a company would be tried in the case. Sklyarov is the only member of the company to have been arrested.