David Smith, creator of the infamous Melissa virus, pleaded "guilty" in court to having spawned the virus.

As part of a plea bargain, he could face up to ten years in prison and a $150,000 fine, as well as five years behind bars for a federal charge of sending out a damaging computer program.

Smith, a 31-year-old computer programmer from New Jersey, admitted he created and distributed Melissa, which is believed to have caused more than $80 million dollars damage by disrupting email systems worldwide on March 26.

Sal Viveros, director of Maximum Total Virus Defense at Network Associates, said Smith's guilty plea could send a sharp jolt of reality through the virus writing community, forcing many of them underground in fear of prosecution for their creations.

"No one of high profile has really ever been convicted of virus creation," said Viveros. "We're hoping that this will have a chilling effect on the number of viruses produced for Y2K, because now there's a consequence. Now these people will go to jail."

Viveros said that virus writers and the public in general are starting to realize that just because a virus does not have a dangerous payload does not necessarily mean it cannot do serious damage.

"Melissa was definitely the virus to wake people up to that fact," Viveros said.

Melissa attacked Microsoft Word 97 and Microsoft Word 2000 by lowering security settings on infected PCs, and by sending infected email messages to the first 50 names in the user's address book through Microsoft Outlook. The email message was disguised as a harmless "important message" from a familiar friend or colleague.