Demand Letters Worsen Alleged Code Violation

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Once upon a time, when a lawyer sent a demand letter to an alleged copyright infringer, demanding that he or she straighten up and fly right, that might well occur. Today, some say, at least where the Internet is concerned, it’s a virtual invitation to online insurrection.

That’s exactly what resulted during the past few days, reports the New York Times, after lawyers for companies that developed a computer code protecting high-definition movies from unauthorized use sent cease-and-desist letters to Web sites that had publicly posted the code. Instead of getting the sequence of 32 numbers and digits removed from the Internet, the letters “sparked its proliferation on Web sites, in chat rooms, inside cleverly doctored digital photographs and on user-submitted news sites,” reports the Times, in what the newspaper termed a lesson in mob power and the futility of attempting any censorship of the Internet.

“It’s a perfect example of how a lawyer’s involvement can turn a little story into a huge story,” says Fred von Lohmann, a staff lawyer for Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Now that they started sending threatening letters, the Internet has turned the number into the latest celebrity. It is now guaranteed eternal fame.”

The scenario, of course, has sparked a lot of Internet chat, including comments both from experts on the computer industry and attorneys who work with hi-tech clients. “It’s harder to keep a secret than ever before, and lawyers are not helping,” writes computer columnist John Dvorak in an article posted on the Dow Jones site But “who knew that a law degree could be a weapon of mass destruction?” notes a post on an unofficial blog for the ABA Cyberspace Law Committee. It asks members of the profession for comments on how such situations should optimally be handled.

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