MIT Piracy Case Shows Technology Laws Lacking

In the wake of a decision by a federal judge to dismiss criminal charges against an MIT student accused of running one of the biggest computer piracy schemes ever, both Harvard and the federal government are reevaluating their rules on computer crimes.

David M. LaMacchia, a 21-year-old MIT senior majoring in electrical engineering and computer science, was charged last April with conspiracy to commit wire fraud for allegedly running a computer bulletin board that allowed people to make free copies of more than $1 million worth of copyrighted computer software.

LaMacchia, who is from Rockville, Md., operated an electronic bulletin board called Cynosure through his MIT computer. Because MIT's computer system is part of the Internet--a global data communications network--computer users all over the world were able to gain access to Cynosure.

From November of 1993 until MIT shut down the system in January of 1994, these users accessed the bulletin board to make free copies of commercial software programs, such as Microsoft Excel 5.0, WordPerfect 6.0 and Sim City 2000.

Using the aliases `Grimjack' and `John Gaunt,' LaMacchia organized the flow of software in and out of the system and warned its many anonymous users not to reveal the site's location on the Internet.

Donald K. Stern, the United States Attorney in Boston, said more than $1 million worth of illegally copied software passed through the system during the three months it was in operation, according to court documents.

LaMacchia was not accused of using the software himself or of profiting in any way from the trading, but prosecutors said his operation was one of the largest in world-wide electronic black market that trades billions of dollars worth of illegally copied software each year.

The April indictment was one of the government's first attempts to crack down on technology crimes, many of which have been launched by the growth of the Internet.

If convicted, LaMacchia would have faced time in jail and up to $250,000 in fines.

`New Wine, Old Bottle'

The case attempted to answer questions of whether existing laws could be used or were sufficient to prosecute new computer age crimes.

But the Federal judge ruled an emphatic no.

On December 29, District Judge Richard G. Stearns dismissed the criminal charges against LaMacchia, ruling that "what LaMacchia is alleged to have done is not criminal conduct under...the Copyright Act."

Although he dismissed the criminal charges, he was critical of LaMacchia's actions.

"If the indictment is to be believed," he said, "one might at best describe [LaMacchia's] actions as heedlessly irresponsible, and at worst as nihilistic, self-indulgent, and lacking in any fundamental sense of values."