May 11, 2004

Winny Arrest

Slashdot has the story: The Japanese police has arrested a scientist for the crime of developing a computer program called Winny. Joi Ito comments that this "is an absolute disgrace to Japan" and "Japan is yet again leading the world in stupid Internet policing."

This case is sure to generate a lot of controversy. The debate won't end anytime soon. I have a few preliminary comments, but will probably have occasion to come back to the question later.

From what I have heard, the scientist in question designed his program with the express purpose of facilitating copyright violations by building strong privacy protection. He also said that he accepts the charges since in his opinion his activity was illegal.

He might be wrong. But the fact that a clearly intelligent scientist at the leading Japanese university chose to put a lot of effort into this programming project even when convinced that it was illegal to do so tells us one thing: There are people out there who will resort to civil disobedience to fight against copyright extremism.

Arresting scientists for development work obviously has a chilling effect. One comment on slashdot is from a post-graduate student who is doing research work on P2P networks. If he lived in Japan, his career in that field would carry a new strong risk now. Therefore it is important to find out what exactly is legal and what exactly is illegal in development work.

For example, no one even thought of indicting Akio Morita, the founder of Sony, for work on the development of tape recorders, even though that clearly is a device that facilitates copyright violation. It was exactly the other way round: One of the early large orders came from the Japanese Supreme Court (see Morita/Saito, Made in Japan, Tokio 1986, page 51).

So clearly only developing some technology that enables copyright violation can't be enough.

If that would be different, all development on the Internet as such might become illegal. FTP has been around since 1971. Of course, users can violate copyrights by FTP. What exactly makes Winny different?

If there is no clear answer to this question, this kind of arrest is extremely dangerous. It might lead to a big setback for the development of the information society in Japan.

Posted by Karl-Friedrich Lenz at May 11, 2004 11:24 AM | TrackBack