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LaMacchia Case Should Be Dropped

We members of the Internet and MIT communities are very upset by several aspects of the case against David M. LaMacchia '95.

The government accuses LaMacchia of conspiring with unspecified persons on the Internet to copy $1 million of commercial software. The principal evidence against LaMacchia is a "README" file on the bulletin board that he created. A society is not free if a person can be deprived of liberty on the basis of such easily-forged evidence. The author could just as easily be any of us or of the 20 million other users of Internet.

If this kind of evidence is admissible in criminal cases, no Internet user can feel secure. For example, let's say that John Smith is angry with Bob Jones, another Internet user. John addresses a message to one of Internet's thousands of bulletin boards, making it appear to have come from Bob. This is a simple matter requiring no special technical knowledge. The message reads: "Please upload copies of the Apple Operating System source code." Apple Computer can then call the FBI and have Bob arrested on the basis of a message whose author is not determinable.

Unless the government can produce a witness who personally observed LaMacchia typing the "README" file, fairness demands that we disregard the file's contents. The only thing LaMacchia remains charged with is operating a public bulletin board, one of thousands on the Internet worldwide. An electronic bulletin board is no different from a corkboard or file cabinet in a public place. If a stranger posts an advertisement for something illegal, does that make the corkboard owner part of a conspiracy?

Although not central to the case, the government's flawed analogy between the alleged actions of people using Mr. LaMacchia's bulletin board (copying raw programs, or binaries) and someone "taking boxes off the shelf at Egghead Software" blows this case way out of proportion. When you buy a typical software program, you get manuals, support, upgrades, a training video, example files, etc. in addition to the program per se. The raw binary has some value, but regular users of a program usually end up needing (and buying) the complete package.

Thus, the government's estimate of $1 million in losses to copyright holders is fanciful at best. Some software publishers might be able to make more money if computer networks were abolished, but that doesn't provide a justification for shutting down the Internet or imprisoning 20-year-old kids.

There is no reliable evidence that LaMacchia solicited copyrighted programs. There is no evidence that LaMacchia caused software publishers any substantial loss. There is no society that could call itself free if the owner of a bulletin board is responsible for every message posted there. The case against LaMacchia should be dropped.

Phillip G. Greenspun G, Lynn Andrea Stein Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and 29 others