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Craziness in the Courtroom

I’ve been told many times that legal rulings do not necessarily correspond to common sense. A decision by a lower court in California proves just how true this is. In Bunnell versus the Motion Picture Association of America, Rob Anderson was accused of violating the 1968 Wiretap Act after he intruded into a server owned by Valence Media and configured it to forward email messages to his gmail account. He then collected them and gave them to the Motional Picture Association of America (MPAA), which wanted to obtain evidence concerning the fire sharing services that this company offers. The MPAA paid Anderson USD 15,000 for his services.

In August 2007 the Central District of California ruled that the accused had not intercepted any email messages, and thus did not violate the 1968 Wiretap Act. Judge Florence-Marie Cooper’s reasoning was based on her somehow being convinced that the messages had been stored momentarily, and thus were not in transmission.

This ruling still amazes me. How can someone claim that messages that were transmitted were really “not in transmission?” Additionally, forwarding messages to a destination other than the one that Valence Media intended certainly sounds like interception to me. Furthermore, the fact that Anderson had to break into the system to configure it to forward messages to a destination of Anderson’s choice by all appearances shows intent to intercept message content.

Lawyers for Valence Media are appealing the Central District of California Court ruling; the case is now in the hands of a California federal appeals court. It is hard to predict how the forthcoming ruling will go, however, because judges and juries typically understand so little about computer and networking technology. Until they learn more about it, crazy rulings such as Judge Florence-Marie Cooper’s are likely to continue. A more sane ruling by the California federal appeals court appears to be the best thing that can currently happen to correct specious thinking about technology that has governed previous court decisions. A proliferation of cases of this nature will invariably occur in the future. The ruling by the California federal appeals courts is thus potentially extremely important—it is likely to set a precedent that guides future rulings.

There is yet another critical consideration in this case, however. The MPAA has at times acted rather wantonly in its pursuit of copyright violations, and its conduct in connection with Valence Media is by no means an exception. MPAA actually paid someone to intrude into a system, despite the fact that gaining unauthorized access to systems is prohibited by multiple federal and state statutes. Apparently, MPAA feels that the end justifies the means, and that it is above the law. It is well past time that the MPAA is held accountable for its despicable actions.

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