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Court ponders key Net jurisdiction case

The California Supreme Court is considering its verdict on a case that could set a precedent for legal action from US states and countries over global Internet content, after three years of legal volleys.

The case involves Matthew Pavlovich, an open source developer who was sued in 1999 by the DVD Copy Control Association in the US for publishing code on how to circumvent DVD encryption.

At the time, Pavlovich was a student in Indiana who was part of an online open source development forum that published the code that allowed Linux users to view DVDs on their computers.

The suit, filed in a, California court in 1999, alleged that Pavlovich and a number of other defendants broke the law by revealing the contents of the entertainment industry's DVD encryption code. The group claimed that it was filing the suit in California because the industry was concentrated in the state.

Pavlovich's lawyers argued that just because California residents could view the published code in the state, that did not mean that the court had jurisdiction in the case. The court denied the motion, however, and so too did an appeals court.

In December 2000 the California Supreme Court reviewed the case and unanimously ruled that the appeals court had to show cause as to why Pavlovich should be forced to stand trial in California. The appeals court ruled again in favour of the DVD CCA, prompting Pavlovich to appeal the order with the California Supreme Court. A year later, the California Supreme Court decided to take on the case.

Free speech advocates fear that if the California Supreme Court rules in favour of the DVD CCA, the case could set a dangerous precedent whereby any person or company that published on the Web could be found subject to regional laws.

Jason Maher, vice-president and general counsel for the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA), said that his group was taken aback when the appeals court upheld the order for Pavlovich to stand trial in California.

"It opens the door for everyone on the Internet to be under jurisdiction of individual states or countries," Maher said.

Pavlovich is not the only defendant fighting against jurisdictional issues on the Net recently, as several other high-profile cases have emphasised the problems that can arise when a global medium falls foul of regional laws.

Last year the US government charged Moscow software company ElcomSoft for distributing software that allows users to circumvent the copyright protections in Adobe Systems' eBook format.

ElcomSoft filed a motion to dismiss the case on grounds that its offence occurred primarily on the Internet and not in the US, but that motion was dismissed last month.

In May 2000, a French court ordered Yahoo! to make it impossible for French users to make bids on Nazi memorabilia posted on Web sites the portal hosted, because under French law it is illegal to exhibit or sell objects with racist overtones.

Yahoo! initially appealed against the decision but then decided to remove the items of its own accord.

With Internet jurisdiction claims still up in the air, many companies and individuals publishing on the Net will be keeping their eye on the Pavlovich verdict.
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