A federal jury in San Jose, Calif.,on Dec. 17 acquitted a Russian software firm of digital copyright violations for creating a program that cracks the security features of Adobe Systems’ eBook Reader software.

The case against ElcomSoft Ltd. was the most high-profile criminal prosecution under the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which many education and consumer-rights groups consider unduly restrictive. Although the jury’s verdict doesn’t change the law, legal experts say the case was an important test of consumers’ rights to use digital movies, images, and books they legally obtain.

The copyright act under which ElcomSoft was tried prohibits the production and distribution of any product that circumvents the security features of digital media.

Supporters of the law—including the software, publishing, and entertainment industries—say it’s necessary to prevent the illegal copying and distribution of electronic content. But civil libertarians and some education groups argue that the DMCA stifles academic research and gives publishers too tight a grip over online content.

With Adobe’s eBook Reader software, for example, publishers can set such restrictions as banning printing entirely or restricting the number of pages or allotted time for reading.

Prosecutors had tried to prove that the ElcomSoft software was illegal because it permitted owners to freely distribute copyrighted material, encouraging piracy.

The defense had argued that the ElcomSoft’s program merely enabled owners of the eBook Reader to exercise their rights to “fair use” under copyright law, including making copies of eBooks for backups, transfers to other devices, and other personal use.

Jury foreman Dennis Strader said that argument had a big impact on the jurors, who asked U.S. District Judge Ronald M. Whyte to clarify the “fair use” definition shortly after deliberations began.

“Under the eBook formats, you have no rights at all, and the jury had trouble with that concept,” said Strader.

Adobe had complained to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) after the software became available for download in the United States, for around $99.

Though Adobe provides the software for viewing eBooks free on computers, the program for creating such books sells for up to $10,000 per copy. Adobe has been concerned about any perception that copyrighted content isn’t secure.

In response to the jury’s verdict, Adobe said it was disappointed but stood by its original decision to report ElcomSoft’s activities to prosecutors.

Prosecutor Scott H. Frewing had told jurors that the Russians “were selling a burglar tool for software to make a profit.” He quickly left the courtroom after the verdict and had no immediate comment.

Miriam Nisbett, legislative counsel for the American Library Association, hailed the jury’s decision.

“The [DMCA] really did tighten up what anyone can do with copyrighted material,” she said. “It was reassuring that the jury in this case saw that if there was a well-intentioned purpose, the company would not be [held] liable.”

Still, Nisbett said, it’s too early to tell whether the ruling will have any direct impact on how educators handle the use of digitally protected intellectual property in the future.

“I think we still have to be very wary, because there are very serious penalties for violating the DMCA,” she said. “We’re still going to have to tread very carefully.”

ElcomSoft president Alex Katalov said the program that triggered the prosecution is no longer being sold in Russia or anywhere else.

The Moscow company makes a variety of code-cracking and password recovery programs, and its clients include numerous U.S. law enforcement agencies—including, ironically, the FBI and the Department of Justice.

See these related links:

ElcomSoft Ltd. http://www.elcomsoft.com

Adobe Systems Ltd. http://www.adobe.com

American Library Association http://www.ala.org