July 21, 2000
By CARL S. KAPLAN
Norwegian Teenager Appears at Hacker Trial He Sparked
he person who kicked off a huge legal battle involving Hollywood and the Internet is a skinny, 16-year-old Norwegian computer programmer who, with his serious face, wire-rimmed glasses and almost-there mustache, could maybe pass for 17.
Yesterday the mild-looking young man, Jon Johansen, was the focus of attention in Judge Lewis A. Kaplan's courtroom in federal court in Manhattan. He calmly admitted, for the first time in a legal tribunal, that he and two other hackers wrote the computer program known as DeCSS .
The software, available on the Internet, unlocks the information on an encrypted DVD movie disk, allowing a user to copy the movie to a hard drive for later viewing.
DeCSS has Hollywood in a tizzy. In a lawsuit pending before Judge Kaplan, eight major studios are suing Eric Corley, a Long Island-based publisher and editor of a hacker magazine and Web site, for posting the software and linking to hundreds of other sites around the world that offer the code.
The studios claim that Corley's "trafficking" in the code violates a federal law, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which prohibits the distribution of a device that is primarily designed to circumvent a technological barrier guarding a copyrighted work.
In the first three days of the trial, which began on Monday, a parade of witnesses for the Hollywood studios have testified that movies on DVD disks are protected with an encryption system called CSS to deter piracy. With the aid of DeCSS, witnesses said, a consumer can make an unauthorized copy of a DVD movie, then compress the decrypted file and send it merrily around the Internet to friends or swap it for other pirated movies.
Corley, who is represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Martin Garbus, a veteran New York trial lawyer and First Amendment specialist, have claimed in legal papers that the new federal law must be interpreted to allow for unauthorized but legitimate access to copyrighted work, lest it imperil First Amendment freedoms. They also say that Corley has never used DeCSS to pirate a movie, and that it would be impractical for anyone to use the code for that purpose.
Johansen, about 6 feet tall, with dark, short-cropped hair, was called as a surprise witness for the defense. He was in New York City to attend a hacker convention, and he and his father attended the trial earlier this week as anonymous members of the audience. When a witness pointed him out as one of the authors of DeCSS, Judge Kaplan ordered the young man out of the courtroom, telling him that he was a potential witness.
Johansen lives with his parents and two sisters in Larvik, a small town south of Oslo. His father, Per, is a postal worker who runs a computer business on the side. In an interview the day before his testimony, Jon said that he is a self-taught computer expert who started playing with his father's computers when he was six years old.
In the fall of 1999, Johansen said, he and two other programmers -- one from Germany and the other from the Netherlands -- decided to write the DeCSS code. He said they wanted to allow people to watch DVD films they had purchased or rented on computers with alternative operating systems like Linux. At that time, he said, there was no hardware or software that could enable someone who purchased a DVD to view it on a Linux-based computer.
At trial, Johansen said that his German friend, known by the nickname "Ham," was the one who successfully hacked a DVD player and retrieved the secret CSS "key." Later, Johansen took that information and created a program that is easily usable on Linux machines, he said. His code was released as a Windows application for technical reasons, he added.
In November 1999, Johansen posted DeCSS on a Web site operated by his family. He also advertised the program in a hacker chat room and on a bulletin board. He did it "to allow others to use it," he said in the interview. In the next few months, about 20,000 to 30,000 people downloaded copies of the program, he said. After the movie studios sued Corley, Johansen took down the code.
In late January of this year, at the behest of the movie studios, police from Norway's financial crime unit visited Johansen at home, bearing a search warrant. They seized his two computers, some CDs, his cell phone and his cell phone charger. "What they hoped to get from the charger, I don't know," he added, smiling.
Johansen and his father are now under investigation in Norway for two crimes: an intellectual property offense -- for posting and advertising DeCSS -- and breaking into a computer system without permission. They face a maximum punishment of fines and two years in jail.
A minor celebrity in Norway as a result of his DeCSS activities, Johansen said
that since the beginning of the year he has received his country's most
prestigious academic prize for high school students, as well as several job
offers from computer firms. He recently left school and started work as a
programmer at an Oslo-based startup working on mobile phone technology and interactive
While Johansen's testimony seemed to help the defense's efforts to depict the trial as a contest between Goliath and some Davids, its legal significance is questionable.
Charles Sims, a lawyer for the movie studios, suggested in an interview that Johansen's testimony is a diversion from the core issues in the case.
"The question is what this defendant [Corley] did," Sims said. "Did this defendant traffic in a circumvention device? Whatever was in Jon Johansen's head when he invented DeCSS in Norway in the fall of 1999 is totally irrelevant."
At trial, Sims objected to much of Johansen's testimony, saying it was not relevant, but Judge Kaplan wearily waved him off. "The man is here from Norway. I may as well hear it," the judge said.
After his son left the witness chair, Per Johansen told a reporter in the courtroom hallway that his son had done "very well." He noted that Jon's grandfather fought the Nazis in World War II. He said that he himself fought communism in Europe in the 1980s by working as a secret courier for Solidarity leaders in Poland, carrying money into the country and smuggling out documents.
"Jon is in an historical line," Per Johansen said proudly. "He is fighting for freedom."
The trial is expected to end next week.
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