All Jon Johanssen wanted to do when he wrote his own DVD-playing software was find a way to watch movies on his computer. What his software has become is the latest focal point of a controversy that has exploded, in which technology, business and the First Amendment collide. When Emmanuel Goldstein, who runs a hacker magazine called 2600, posted Johanssen's software on a website, eight media companies (including Time Warner, parent company of TIME) sued Goldstein, who also goes by the name Eric Corley. Last Thursday a New York judge ruled in the companies' favor, raising questions about how our legal system will regulate technology.
In order to play DVDs, Johanssen's program breaks the encryption that prevents them from being copied. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, that's a crime. Goldstein will appeal; his lawyer, Martin Garbus, who also defended Lenny Bruce and Timothy Leary, argues that software is self-expression and hence protected by the First Amendment. Furthermore, he asks, just because this application of the program is criminal, does that make the program itself criminal? U.S. District Court Judge Lewis A. Kaplan thought so. He wrote, in an occasionally impassioned 93-page ruling, that "the excitement of ready access to untold quantities of information has blurred in some minds the fact that taking what is not yours and not freely offered to you is stealing." Napster, are you listening?
--By Lev Grossman