Sklyarov meets Copyright, East meets West
By Peter Zelchenko

July 20, 2001

After the recent arrest in Las Vegas of Dmitry Sklyarov, the programmer with Moscow's ElcomSoft who defeated Adobe's e-book encryption capabilities, the publishing world has been buzzing with greater excitement than has yet been seen. Sklyarov made his discoveries the topic of an elaborate presentation at the Def Con hacker convention in Las Vegas, where he was arrested the next day by U.S. authorities. During a highly active discussion in The eBook Community forum, writer-publisher Ethan Casey touched on the dynamics of the East-West element in these proceedings:

"I'd like to say that my own sensibility, for better or worse, has been affected by living for five years in Asia, where everything is pirated and long has been. Another thing that makes Asia different from the West is the relative absence of moralism -- people don't (in my experience) speak and act based on implicitly or explicitly moralized categories or definition of terms; the moral and cultural universe is different, based on what seems to me a more honest understanding of how power and human relationships really work."

Since a Chinese could have a bullet in the back of his head for flouting his own government, it may be reasonable to imagine that a Chinese citizen would be afraid of any government. Therefore, we shouldn't be surprised that the bold hacker was not from China. The appeal to the question in terms of Eastern philosophy is intriguing, but may not be applicable here; it is more likely to be strictly a matter of personal values in a changed Russia. While it's safe for a Chinese to be a consumer dutifully copying the white devil's software, this generation of Chinese will not produce any Hollywood Hackers like Dmitry Sklyarov (Dmitry is quite a bit more than this, but he is also this).

I've lived in Beijing and Moscow both; the top of the educated new bourgeoisie in this generation in either country, working as programmers, designers, artists, authors, are much more Western in their ideas than the average civilian, naturally because most of the high cultural seeds come from the West as they have for centuries. (Russia, recall, has always been between East and West ideologically; any new radical thing is probably drawn from the West, while traditional Eastern devices have gradually eroded, beginning in the reign of Peter the Great.) These are relatively brash, opinionated people. But, although there have been many talented programmers and hackers in Russia, this is the first one to my knowledge who has openly broadcast his exploits and willingly drawn public attention and fire. This shows us a changed Russia, one in which the Lyubyanka and KGB are no longer threatening ideas, though it will be interesting to see how Putin's government handles this.

It is very interesting just how far Dima Sklyarov has taken the avant garde Russian hacker overnight. Over and above the rudimentary and relatively low-key "Here's a neat little cracking program I've posted," he has gone to Def Con in Las Vegas, a sort of Revolutionary Paris for the EFF/WIRED crowd, and effectively declared a war alliance along with the West Coast technos against software tyranny. This would be a bold move even for an American, let alone for a post-Soviet Russian. He is ambitious to a fault, a mark of many New Russians. He is beyond the skills of the top-paid programmers in America. He is after your job, and he deserves it.

Roger Sperberg's recollection of copy-protection software stirs memories of one of my roommates and co-workers at the University of Illinois, a very upright and honest man, who would use CopyII+ (Apple II, about 1981) until he was blue in the face. It seemed not to bother him in the least, and he was a programmer himself. Today, many people I know who are otherwise extremely conscientious about the law don't seem to consider it offensive to copy a CD-ROM full of licensed software. This is because it's convenient to be a mere digital kleptomaniac. But it is not convenient to do what Dima Sklyarov has shown us how to do; it would take 15 solid hours, four dedicated computers, and a total of 512 gigabytes of free disk space, just to crack one Adobe e-book. I know that nothing I have ever written is worth that kind of effort to crack. I can't think of many books that are, and so I don't see what the fuss is all about.

After all, what we are seeing today is an increasing granularity in what may be called "content circles," measuring the relationship of the creative originator to his or her audience. More and more we see writers, published even by such imprints as Random House, appealing to family, friends, and those few interested in the specific subject matter -- and not many others. In trade publishing's heyday, E.L. Doctorow's content circle was huge; his international readership was colossal. Today, many relative unknowns are published by Random House. A friend of mine was published by them last fall and his career shone very briefly. But, aside from those close to him and those few with a specific interest in his book, he is once again unknown.

We are not only becoming a generation of digital kleptomaniacs, but each of us soon will be a momentary publishing phenomenon. We should amend Warhol's 15 minutes of fame to be more like 15 hours today; however, the fame is thoroughly diluted. With such dilution, where is the need for bulletproofing a creative work? After those 15 hours, the moment the computers have cracked the code, the book's value has flatlined. If Random House is becoming a vanity press, we may mourn the great age of the ivory tower, but we may no longer need to lock our e-books up so securely.

Casey comes to his point: "Thus, 'should' Sklyarov be free to do what he does, or brought to book for doing it? I'm not sure that's the right question. I'm not sure moralizing the question and/or legislating it is all that helpful. ..."

I thank Ethan; herein lies the fuss. What we are looking at is not a simple question of computer security for one software product, not the comparative moralities of East and West, but rather how the citizenry of multiple independent governments, tangled in a web of political division and economic union whose origins stretch back to Voltaire and Adam Smith and beyond, are to cooperate and reasonably respect creative rights in the decades to come. We may well once again come to world wars as a result of relatively petty issues.

But I'll close with a more immediate provocation: It is one thing to clamor for wide-open rights (such as that which EFF fights for) in a world where personal morals are high, but in one where we are depraved, and in which even the best people are speeding, driving drunk, sleeping with their wives' best friends, and stealing e-books, it is a completely different thing. We need public policing if we cannot govern ourselves.

Peter Zelchenko (pete@suba.com) Chicago, Illinois

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