Is it Piracy if the Product is Free?
John Stottlemire posted code and instructions on the internet that lets people print as many coupons as they want from Coupons.com - despite the website only allowing two per product. Is this a case of piracy for which Stottlemire should be sued in court, or just a case of an individual sharing helpful information?
Here's the deal. To use these coupons, consumers must install Coupons Inc.'s proprietary software. The software assigns each user's computer a unique identifier, which the company uses to track and control the consumer's coupon-printing practices. We've all experienced spyware like this before - software which installs itself on your computer, slowing it down, and causing a myriad of other headaches - and the government has even promoted initiatives to prevent it. So as this Wired article asks, "How can a computer owner be prohibited from deleting files from his own computer?".
Stottlemire is being sued for violating the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), and specifically for helping people circumvent anti-piracy measures. In essence, he is being treated as if he pirated music or movies and distributed them illegally on the internet.
But here's the wrinkle: He's accused of liberating something that is already free. Coupons.com already gives away their coupons for free to anyone who wants them, albeit in a controlled, limited quantity. If you're pirating something that's already legally available to the public at no cost, can it still be considered piracy?
Furthermore, it's outrageous to claim that offering people instructions and a software tool that deletes spyware from your computer is ILLEGAL. Stottlemire has defended himself by saying, "All I did was erase files or registry keys. Nothing was hacked. Nothing was decoded...". In this he is, in my opinion, exactly right. The DMCA's anti-circumvention provisions have been legally interpreted by the courts to mean that you cannot hack or decode software that protects copyrighted material. That's why it's illegal to decode and burn copies of encrypted DVDs from your local Blockbuster. However, Stottlemire hasn't hacked or decoded anything. He has simply shared information and created a software tool that deletes spyware files from users' computers. These are files that slow down computers' performance and collect information about the user, sending it across the internet, slowing down the connection speed, back to the private company to use for marketing purposes and selling it to spammers.
Regardless of Stottlemire's intentions, which may have admittedly not been of the most noble variety, the bottom line is that prosecuting him for pirating something that's already free and for creating a program that deletes spyware from users' computers would set a horrific legal precedent. In the Internet Age, people need to be able to protect themselves by maintaining control over what files reside on their machines. The real problem is with Coupons.com's misguided attempt to protect their product, now deemed so important, while still affording everybody the ability to circumvent those protections with nothing more than the "Delete" key.