MIT student indicted on piracy charges

April 09, 1994|By Michael Dresser and Nelson Schwartz | Michael Dresser and Nelson Schwartz,Sun Staff Writers

To the prosecution, Massachusetts Institute of Technology student David LaMacchia was the captain of an electronic pirate ship that sailed the globe in search of software programs to plunder.

To the defense, the 20-year-old Marylander is "among the best and brightest in society" -- a "typical MIT whiz kid" who is being prosecuted for the crimes of others in an attempt to strike terror into the hearts of all who run computer bulletin boards.

As the courts decide, the whole wired world will be watching.

Mr. LaMacchia, who operated under the computer names "John Gaunt" and "Grimjack," was indicted in Boston late Thursday on a felony charge of wire fraud.

The federal government alleges that the Rockville resident operated two computer bulletin boards at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that encouraged users to illegally help themselves to $1 million worth of copyrighted software. The boards were connected to the Internet, the international network of computer networks, which meant that files posted there could be copied by users all over the world.

The case represents an apparent escalation of the federal government's crackdown on computer bulletin board system operators (known in computer jargon as SYSOPs) who let their boards be used as electronic bazaars for swapping software, the electronic instructions that tell computers how to do their job.

According to the Software Publishers Association (SPA), the industry loses an estimated $7.45 billion a year worldwide to piracy of business application software, such as Windows.

The indictment charges that Mr. LaMacchia knowingly permitted people who called into his bulletin board to post and copy commercial software programs, but it does not allege that the computer science major copied or sold software himself.

Ken Wasch, executive director of the SPA, said it is the first case he is aware of in which a federal prosecutor sought criminal charges against a SYSOP for operating a so-called "pirate board" without profiting from the venture.

Mr. Wasch said the case does not turn on the question of profit but on the harm software piracy does to the industry.

For the SPA, the indictment is the culmination of a determined effort to persuade the government to crack down on the illegal distribution of its members' products.

"We've had a hard time over the past 10 years in getting the FBI and U.S. attorney's office to pay attention to this unique form of white-collar crime," he said.

Widespread attention

Within hours of the indictment, Mr. LaMacchia was well on his way to becoming an Internet celebrity as users of the network posted urgent messages and swapped electronic mail about the case.

"Certainly anyone involved in computers will be watching this," Emmanuel Goldstein, editor-in-chief of 2600: A Hacker's Quarterly, said in an interview. "Theoretically, it could really create a sense of paranoia, of being watched, every time you run a program."

The defendant at the center of the controversy is a 1991 graduate of Thomas S. Wootton High School who starred on the school's nationally ranked academic decathlon team, which made it to the National Science Bowl.

One of his lawyers in Boston, David Duncan, declined to let the MIT junior speak to the media. He said Mr. LaMacchia is "quite distraught. . . . This is a kid who never has had a hint of trouble in his life."

Mr. Duncan said Mr. LaMacchia worked at MIT's artificial intelligence lab during the school year. He is still enrolled and has not taken a leave of absence from the college.

According to the indictment, Mr. LaMacchia's two bulletin boards -- Cynosure I and Cynosure II -- were used to distribute illegally an estimated $1 million worth of copyrighted software between Nov. 21 and Jan. 5. The indictment charges that he actively encouraged users of the board to post commercial software and admonished them not to distribute the electronic address too freely lest the board be found by the "net.cops" -- or network cops.

'Common carrier'

Harvey A. Silverglate, another attorney for Mr. LaMacchia, said his client operated as a "common carrier," much like a phone company, and is being unfairly prosecuted for the actions of others. He denied that Mr. LaMacchia's system was intentionally run as a pirate board, contending that "there's this big soup of a mixture on his system," of which illegally posted software was just a small part. The estimate of $1 million in losses was "utter, complete nonsense," the lawyer said.

"This case is really meant by the government to inflict terror on people who run bulletin boards," Mr. Silverglate said.

Kathryn McCabe, editor of Online Access magazine, said the use of a criminal indictment against a bulletin board in a software copyright case came as no surprise.

"There are a lot of SYSOPs out there that knew this was coming," she said, adding that every system operator in the country would be watching the case.

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