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The Phoenix Menace

"Right and wrong do not exist," Spatafore declared at spatafore.net, a site that also includes nuggets of libertarian philosophy from King Arthur, William "Braveheart" Wallace, and Kain, a character from the game Final Fantasy. "Everything really relies on the perception of the surrounding situation and circumstances." Unfortunately for Spatafore, the perception of the FBI and the federal government was that he had violated the intellectual property of one of the largest film companies on Earth.

On Aug 30, 2000, FBI special agent Chris Pluhar came to Spatafore's Phoenix home with a search warrant. Pluhar seized two computers and interviewed him. Later, a nervous Spatafore went online to the Department of Justice site ( www.usdoj.gov) and investigated the laws relating to criminal copyright infringement. What he read worried him.

The fact that he had only made $40 from his deal with Alladvantage was no help. Under the 1997 No Electronic Theft (NET) act, the government could successfully prosecute him without proof of personal financial gain, arguing that Spata4ent deprived Lucasfilm of movie theater ticket revenue. Spatafore contacted Xoom, asking for figures on the number of people who had downloaded "The Phantom Menace" from his site, hoping to estimate the scale of his effect on Lucasfilm. He never heard back from them. He got a lawyer.

At a San Francisco court hearing on December 15, 2000, the Disman pled guilty to criminal copyright infringement. Before returning to San Francisco for his sentencing, he took a trip with his family to Los Angeles. "If this is my last day of freedom," he said, "I want to spend it in Disneyland. It's a different world, where I escape from reality."

After his sentencing, Spatafore went back to work, relieved at the verdict and eager to warn others about the stress of a federal prosecution. "I'd hate to see other people go through what I've been through," he said. He has abandoned work on a Final Fantasy fan site, for fear of prosecution based on copyright infringements relating to the computer game stills posted on the site.


Federal public defender Ron Tyler expressed dismay at the prosecution. "Spatafore's conduct had minimal impact on Lucasfilm," he says. "This is nothing more than symbolism." By contrast, Anderman was pleased with the verdict. He hopes the case will send a message to other infringers. "It's a great start," he says.

Ross Nadel, who runs the Computer Crime and Intellectual Property (CHIP) unit at the U.S. Attorney's office in San Jose, and who prosecuted the Spatafore case, hopes that the verdict will have another effect: to encourage other companies to come forward and press for prosecution. Companies have been reluctant in the past to approach law enforcement about intellectual property crimes for fear of bad publicity and the risk of signaling their vulnerability to further crime. "I hope this case sends out a message that we're here, and that the government takes copyright violations very seriously," Nadel says.

Founded in February 2000, Nadel's unit is the first of its kind in the country. Nadel is in discussion with U.S. Attorney's offices elsewhere in the country about the creation of other CHIP units. Nadel works closely with the FBI Hi-Tec squad, which was created in June 1999 following pressure from the technology industry.

Other branches of the legal system are getting tough on video decryption tools. On August 17, a New York court ruled that it was illegal for 2600 magazine to post links to DeCSS, the DVD decryption software created in the fall of 1999 by Norwegian teenager Jon Johansen. An appeal is scheduled for May.

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