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Red Hat's DMCA Quibble

The much-reviled Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) can probably now count Red Hat as one of its critics.

The Raleigh, N.C.-based Linux software company has shone a light on criticisms of the 1998 DMCA by publishing a security patch without background information, instead linking to a DMCA protest site the forbids U.S. visitors from seeing technical information.

While Red Hat published the patch for an error is the i810 3D kernel code, the company's security advisory added a link to Thefreeworld.net, under the "references" section, for fuller technical information. That site, based in the European Union, will not allow visitors from the United States to access the information, saying in the license agreement that it might leave the site open to U.S. prosecution for violating the DMCA.

Red Hat representatives were unavailable for comment, but The Register earlier quoted them as calling the situation "bizarre."

Congress passed the DMCA four years ago, after intense lobbying by movie producers, book publishers, and record companies. The act was designed to shield the content producers from pirates circumventing copyright protections, in order to spur the industries to produce more digital content.

The broadly worded act quickly became a lightening rod for controversy. Movie studios slapped hacker magazine 2600 with a lawsuit in 1999, after it published a link to a website containing a Norwegian teenager's DeCSS program that the studios said could be used to crack DVDs' content-scrambling scheme. 2600 founder Eric Corley and online civil liberties group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) recently dropped their bid to have the case heard before the Supreme Court.

"I'm sure most of the members of Congress who voted for the law didn't want it interpreted so broadly," said Seth Schoen, staff technologist at EFF. "Part of the problem is you have these chilling effects where people are afraid."

In July 2001, Russian programmer Dimitry Sklyarov became the anti-DMCA movement's Nelson Mandela, after federal authorities arrested him at a hacker conference in Las Vegas. Skylarov was charged with publishing software that cracks e-book software made by Adobe Systems. The charges carried penalties up to 25 years in prison.

The criminal charges against Skylarov were later dropped, but his arrest re-kindled fears that U.S. authorities would use the DMCA against non-U.S. citizens and companies publishing outside of the country. Skylarov published his software in Russia. His company, Elcomsoft, still faces criminal charges in the matter.

Thefreeworld.net was set up to fight precisely against that, by not allowing visitors from the U.S. to access certain information.

Its founders explain on the site, "This site will feature an archive of information and software with access control in place so citizens and residents of the USA will be able to download the software. This way the rest of the world does not have to suffer U.S. law and useful information will not be lost."

"It's hard to say how widespread it is," said Schoen. " I think there's an effect where people who work in computer security are intimidated by this."

Earlier this month, two Congressmen introduced a bill that would add fair-use protections to the DCMA, in an attempt to address a major criticism of the law. Another bill, introduced by California Rep. Zoe Lofgren would focus the law to target actual copyright violators while avoiding computer researchers developing potential dual-use technologies.