April 8, 1994, to the Boston Globe, on Joseph LaMacchia and software piracy

The "software piracy" article on the front page of the April 8 Globe shows how far the Government and media need to go in understanding technology before we can legislate its use properly.

There is a distinction, totally absent from the article, between making a service available (that is possible to misuse) and actively encouraging misuse. There are numerous low-tech precedents that show that the former is not a crime. For example, a gun manufaturer is not responsible for a murder committed by (a person holding) one of its guns, and the phone company is not responsible for illegal activities done over the phone. Similarly, the operator of a bulletin board system should not be held responsible for illegal use of the system.

The real issue here is whether LaMacchia actively encouraged the use of his bulletin board for illegal copying of software. If so, he's a bad guy. If not, let's let him and MIT decide what to do with the bulletin board, not the Government. Simply providing a bulletin board which has thousands of legitimate and illegitimate uses should not be a crime.

The consequences to society of holding this guy, and others like him, responsible for the information he carries are staggering. Policing the contents of a bulletin board is impossible. Even if he could go through all the files (say) daily, what happens if somebody dumps WordPerfect on there at 4:00 a.m. and someone retrieves it at 4:30 before he wakes up? Or what happens if someone stores WordPerfect encrypted so it looks like, say, a harmless graphics file? And if he's responsible, what about MIT, or the people operating the computer network he's connected to, or (again) the phone company, through which much of this traffic eventually goes?

Bulletin boards provide a valuable service. They are places where anyone can make available any kind of information, which can contribute to a better informed and connected society. If we hold providers responsible for misuse of their services, we'll end up without providers, which nobody wants, especially the administration that made "information superhighway" a household word.

Jon Dreyer