Episode 99: Are we criminalizing reuse? An Exclusive Interview with Eric Lundgren

In this week’s episode of The Security Ledger Podcast (#99), we bring you an exclusive interview with Eric Lundgren, the celebrated entrepreneur who has helped revolutionize the recycling of electronic waste through his company IT Asset Partners, but who will soon start serving a 13 month jail sentence for copyright infringement for distributing Microsoft Windows “restore CDs.” Together, we wonder if The Internet of Things is leading us into a future in which giant software companies and thing makers use copyright law and the courts to prosecute non-sanctioned use of their technology. 

In a matter of two weeks, Eric Lundgren will be heading off to federal prison for a period of between 13 and 15 months. His crime? Selling -for a nominal fee- so-called “restore disks” containing versions of Microsoft’s Windows operating system to accompany PCs and laptops that he refurbished and restored. Never mind that the software he was selling on the CDs was available for free online, or from companies like Dell, which mailed them to customers at no cost. Never mind that without a valid license from Microsoft the software on the CDs was un-usable. Never mind that the only “customer” Lundgren sold his CDs to was a straw buyer operating on behalf of the U.S. government as part of a sting operation.

Eric Lundgren, IT Access Partners
Eric Lundgren with recycled circuit boards. He will serve 13 months in prison for selling Windows restore discs along with refurbished PCs and laptops.

Criminal copyright infringement isn’t a new thing. In fact, since the passage of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in 1998. But Lundgren’s case is notable as perhaps the first of someone being sent to jail for distributing so-called “freeware” -software that companies give away at no cost.  Those externalities didn’t matter much in the Florida courtroom where Lundgren’s fate was in the hands of a U.S. prosecutor who indicated to him that Microsoft had asked for Lundgren’s “head on a platter.”

“Companies profit off of waste,” Lundgren told me. “I thought I was providing this wonderful solution that was going to help everybody and I came to realize that I got in the way of a certain profitable agenda for another company.”

[Also listen to: Episode 95: Copyright Insanity sends E-Waste Recycler to Prison and IoT Inspector finds Insecure Things]

That company, of course, was Microsoft, which has a long history of working hand-in-hand with the U.S. Justice Department to pursue software pirates and other infringers of commercial copyrights.

But Lundgren’s case doesn’t fit the mold of a piracy case. And the implications of Microsoft and the Department of Justice’s pursuit of him could be much more broad. It has, for example, implications for the growing Internet of Things. As companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Samsung, Google and others use software licenses and digital rights management to exert control over more and more of our physical world, the specter of Lundgren carted off to prison in shackles could be a kind of canary in the coal mine: an early glimpse of dystopian future that may await us in which corporations use muscular copyright laws and sympathetic prosecutors and courts to punish what they consider commercially unacceptable or unauthorized use of their intellectual property. As software and copyrighted intellectual property come to control our vehicles, our homes, cities and even our bodies, the criminalization of pro-social activities like resale, recycling or repair could have a stifling effect on all of our lives.

As Eric prepares to serve his time in Federal prison, we’re devoting this episode of the SL podcast to an exclusive interview with him about his case, his views on recycling, reuse and repair and about the implications of stricter, more punitive enforcement of copyright laws in the years ahead.

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