The dismissal of criminal charges against a Rockville college student, indicted for creating a computer bulletin board where hackers could exchange copies of copyrighted software, does not open the door for wholesale abuse of software producers, industry experts said.
In fact, the judge who threw out the indictment said Congress should consider expanding criminal penalties for copyright violators.
Also, the Clinton administration is resisting calls to weaken copyright laws that protect software companies; instead, it has proposed strengthening laws that authors of books, music and software could use to sue people who use their work unfairly.
On Thursday, a federal judge in Boston dismissed a one-count wire fraud indictment against David LaMacchia, 20, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology senior who set up a nonprofit computer bulletin board on the Internet in November 1993.
U.S. District Judge Richard G. Stearns said the government did not have the right to bring the case under the federal wire fraud statutes because federal copyright laws covered the case. Criminal copyright laws do not cover the case because copyright law requires "proof of 'commercial advantage or financial gain,' " make the case a crime, the judge wrote.
Other copyright violations are civil offenses that software makers can prosecute by suing for damages, the judge added.
Both sides acknowledged that Mr. LaMacchia did not seek to make money off the scheme.
A wire fraud case would have required the government to prove only that Mr. LaMacchia intended to deprive the makers of the software royalties or other property to which they were entitled.
Indeed, the government estimated that software pirates copied $1 million of software through Mr. LaMacchia's bulletin board, including copies of such programs as the spreadsheet Excel and the popular urban planning game SimCity 2000.
The judge quoted 1992 congressional testimony that software piracy costs manufacturers $2.4 billion a year worldwide.
The judge said the prosecution's position, had it prevailed, would have allowed it to use the felony wire fraud laws to punish some copyright violators more heavily than others. He said that would undo Congress' penalties for copyright piracy, which treat most criminal violations as misdemeanors.
But Judge Stearns also had unkind words for Mr. LaMacchia. He said Congress should consider changing the copyright laws to make his behavior a crime, calling it "at worst . . . nihilistic, self-indulgent and lacking in any fundamental sense of values."
Despite the dismissal of the April 7 indictment, two copyright lawyers said yesterday that the judge's ruling would not erode the most basic legal protection of software companies, namely their right to sue copyright violators.
Ron Plesser, a copyright lawyer with Piper & Marbury in Washington, said copyright law makes software pirates and other violators liable if their use of the product exceeds "fair use."
Federal law says fair use is determined on a case-by-case basis after considering whether the use was for commercial purposes, the nature of the copyrighted work, how much of the copyrighted work is copied, and what effect the copying has on the potential market for the software or other protected material. In general, use by a nonprofit organization or for educational purposes is less likely to be illegal.
Ned Himmelrich, a copyright lawyer with Gordon, Feinblatt, Rothman, Hoffberger & Hollander in Baltimore, said the law on software copying is "not as lenient as users of computers with a modem would like it to be."
Computer gurus have advocated a free sharing of computer information now protected by copyright law, claiming that limiting access to information suppresses scientific progress and free traffic in ideas.