File Sharing Is No Longer Necessarily Stealing, According to The Government

Most people probably barely noticed when Sergey Aleynikov was arrested for downloading Goldman Sachs’ proprietary software and sentenced to eight years in jail. So it stands to reason that they also probably barely noticed when his sentence was overturned.

But they’re going to take notice now, because why his sentence was overturned will have far-reaching ramifications.

Why? Because federal courts have ruled that downloading proprietary software is not the same thing as stealing an actual good. And that has some pretty far-reaching implications for file-sharing, open source software, and the Internet in general.

Reports Wired:

“Because Aleynikov did not ‘assume physical control’ over anything when he took the source code, and because he did not thereby ‘deprive [Goldman] of its use,’ Aleynikov did not violate the [National Stolen Property Act],” the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in its opinion (.pdf).

The three-judge panel in New York also ruled that Aleynikov was wrongly charged with espionage, since the code was not a product designed for interstate or foreign commerce, a requirement under the Economic Espionage Act with which he was charged and convicted. The court found that Goldman’s system was neither “produced for” nor “placed in” interstate or foreign commerce, nor did the company have any intention of selling its system or licensing it to anyone.

This doesn’t mean stealing music and movies is now magically legal: after all, those are produced for interstate and foreign commerce. But it’s the fact the files are now of a much more nebulous legality that’s going to raise hell for the MPAA and the RIAA. This won’t inhibit their ability to fire up massive numbers of lawsuits, but it will make it more difficult to justify those suits, and make it even more difficult for them to threaten random people with the police. For example, if you download a track that a friend has ripped from a CD they legally purchased…is that a stolen good? Or is that consumer exercising the first-sale doctrine?

We don’t expect this to stand for long: the law is probably being rewritten as we speak. Still, it’s nice to see abuses of power potentially being curbed, if only because judges refuse to give corporations carte blanche to interpret the law.

(Image courtesy the_toe_stubber on Flickr)