Dmitry: From Perp to Pitchman?

Ask.com advertisement, published 05/24/2007There was no escaping Ask.com yesterday — they ran a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and probably several other papers to boot, captioned:

The Algorithm Sees the Internet the Way Dmitry Sklyarov Sees a Poorly Encrypted DRM File.

That made for an interesting (and, to me at least, eye-catching) headline, not least because I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of the Journal‘s readers have absolutely no idea who Dmitry Sklyarov is or why he’s noteworthy, but also because, of that subset of the Journal‘s readers and advertisers who remember Sklyarov, a fair percentage probably disapprove of his conduct. His is an interesting, slightly edgy, name for a ten-billion-dollar intellectual property company to drop, even if it is only by way of alluding to his skill at breaking DRM technologies. (Although if Ask.com wants to get really edgy, I’ve got a name for their next ad campaign that’s even more provocative, and more timely, than Dmitry’s — see below).

Dmitry Sklyarov, for those playing along at home, was the first person ever criminally prosecuted in the United States for violating the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. His crime? Sklyarov, a Russian computer programmer, created a software program to turn copy-protected Adobe eBook files into ordinary PDFs. On the one hand, this made the eBooks far more useful to their owners — Sklyarov’s program enabled eBooks to be printed and to be read aloud via text-to-speech software, for example; capabilities not implemented by Adobe’s own eBook software. On the other hand, Sklyarov’s program also eliminated the copy protections that Adobe had built into the eBooks. Such software was lawful in Russia where Sklyarov actually developed his program. (Insert your own “In Soviet Russia…” joke here.)

When Sklyarov traveled to the United States in the summer of 2001, however, he was arrested — one suspects, at the instigation of Adobe Systems — after speaking at a hacker convention in Las Vegas. He was jailed pending trial and forbidden to return home to Russia. Sklyarov’s case became something of a cause célèbre among Internet civil libertarians in the U.S., and a web site, Free Sklyarov, was set up to track developments in the case. After Sklyarov and his employer, the Russian software company Elcomsoft, unsuccessfully attempted to have the indictment dismissed (United States v. Elcom Ltd., 203 F. Supp. 2d 1111 (N.D. Cal. 2002)), Sklyarov turned state’s evidence and agreed to testify for the government.

The first-ever criminal DMCA trial ended in a defense verdict acquitting Elcomsoft of all charges. The arrest and prosecution of Sklyarov, however, had a perceptible chilling effect on foreign researchers and computer scientists, who reacted with alarm to the U.S. government’s arrest of a foreign national, transiently present in the U.S., based on conduct that was lawful where committed in the national’s home country. Dutch computer engineer Niels Ferguson famously refused to publish the results of his research into Intel’s proprietary HDCP DRM system for digital video transmission for fear of arrest the next time he traveled to the United States, and the Association for Computing Machinery warned that the risk of arrest would discourage its foreign-based members from attending conferences hosted in the United States.

So has Dmitry completed the transition from Robin Hood-style outlaw folk hero to respectable corporate icon? Maybe so — although invoking Sklyarov gives the Ask.com ad a slight whiff of subversiveness among those who actually know his story, it’s likely to inspire far more muted reactions among the greater number of readers who can infer from the ad only that Dmitry must be a talented computer guy of some sort.

Here’s a challenge for Ask.com: next time you’re planning to invoke a controversial cyber vigilante/folk hero/miscreant/martyr in an ad stuffed with other obscure references, forget Sklyarov and go with DVD Jon, the author of DeCSS, QTFairUse, PyMusique, and many other circumvention tools, a professional thorn in the side of the digital content industry whose blog is tellingly captioned (with puckish insouciance) So Sue Me. That might even provoke a WSJ editorial denouncing you (and DVD Jon) as threats to capitalism itself, and hey, there’s no such thing as bad press in advertising, right?

4 Responses to “Dmitry: From Perp to Pitchman?”

  1. Interesting; yet another reason for me to not like ASK ;)

    Why a company would waste money on something a very high % of people will know nothing about, is beyond me.

  2. See, I take it entirely differently. They aren’t wasting money on something a high % of people will know nothing about, what they are trying for is to get “people like me,” who know the story, to become “early adopters,” hyping their product. This is nothing more than what fashion companies do when they get “starlets” to wear their goods. What this looks like to me is that ask.com asked themselves how google became the behomoth that it is. For those of us who can remember google’s really early days, it was “the in way to search,” among the technological elite. In its early early days, 90% of googles traffic came from geeks in the know. It seems to me that ask.com is trying to pull the same trick. Get geeks in the know to use their product, sit around and wait for explosive word of mouth growth. However, as I see it, the problem with this approach is that today, geeks in the know don’t have the same kind of clout they did back when the internet was more mystifying (to courts and lay people alike). We’ll see how this one plays out, but regardless of the “algorithm”, if you know how to search, google still puts ask.com to the task and then some…

  3. I wouldn’t even consider ASK one of the major search engine anymore. Now google and yahoo have to battle it out.

  4. Chris is right, though they could have spent their money on more mainstream software that would make a quicker buck.