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Federal judge dismisses LaMacchia charges

While making clear his belief that MIT student David M. LaMacchia had acted wrongly, a federal judge has dismissed a criminal wire fraud conspiracy indictment against him for running a computer bulletin board that the government said allowed others to make free copies of more than $1 million worth of copyrighted computer software.

District Court Judge Richard G. Stearns chastised Mr. LaMacchia, 21, a senior in electrical engineering and computer science from Rockville, MD, but said there was no law making his behavior a crime.

Mr. LaMacchia was charged last April 7 with conspiracy to commit wire fraud by "operat[ing] a computer bulletin-board service that permitted users to copy copyrighted business and entertainment software without paying to purchase the software." The government said the bulletin board was operated without authorization on MIT computer workstations and was accessible through the Internet, a global computer network.

MIT computer specialists had discovered in December 1993 that a computer in the Student Center complex was being used to distribute software. That information was turned over to the MIT Campus Police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. MIT personnel cooperated in the subsequent FBI investigation.

From the beginning, Mr. LaMacchia's lawyers called the indictment a "test case" and Mr. LaMacchia a "guinea pig" who had not profited "one cent from any copyrighted software that others upload to and download from the system that he and others create and operate."

The judge's ruling has dismayed software companies, who say piracy costs them billions of dollars a year, and hailed by those who believe there should be free exchange of computer software and intellectual property.

Judge Stearns said that the government's objective was laudable because it was "seeking. to punish conduct that reasonable people might agree deserves the sanctions of the criminal law." But prosecuting Mr. LaMacchia under the criminal wire fraud statute, he added, would "criminalize the conduct of not only persons like Mr. LaMacchia, but also the myriad of home computer users who succumb to the temptation to copy even a single software program for private use."

He suggested that copyright laws could be rewritten to make actions such as Mr. LaMacchia's a crime, but said that was a matter for Congress to consider and not the courts.

Judge Stearns said he was not suggesting "there is anything edifying about what LaMacchia is alleged to have done.

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

"Criminal as well as civil penalties should probably attach to willful, multiple infringements of copyrighted software even absent a commercial motive on the part of the infringer," he continued. "One can envision ways that the copyright law could be modified to permit such prosecution." Quoting an earlier case, he added, "it is the legislature, not the Court, which is to define a crime and ordain its punishment."

If convicted, Mr. LaMacchia, who ran the bulletin board from November 1993 until January 1994, could have received a five-year federal prison term plus a $250,000 fine. He issued a statement saying it was a "relief to know that this remains a country where the rule of law governs."

His attorney, prominent civil rights lawyer Harvey Silverglate, said the ruling had dealt "a sharp setback to government attempts to use vague statutes written in a pre-computer era to punish conduct that Congress has not outlawed."

The US Attorney for Massachusetts, Donald K. Stern, couldn't say immediately whether he would appeal, which must be done within 30 days of the decision. But he said he plans to raise with the Department of Justice whether it should file legislation to deal explicitly with software piracy.

MIT said in a statement that there has been no MIT disciplinary action against Mr. LaMacchia "pending the ultimate resolution of the case in court."

"Once it is resolved in law," the statement continued, "MIT disciplinary action will be considered to determine whether LaMacchia's actions violated internal MIT regulations regarding computer usage."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 11, 1995.

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