Professor to speak on anti-copying flaws

A Princeton professor is scheduled to give a speech Wednesday on cracking digital anti-copying technology--a presentation that the entertainment industry once warned could violate federal copyright laws.
Written by Lisa M. Bowman, Contributor
A Princeton professor is scheduled to give a speech Wednesday on cracking digital anti-copying technology--a presentation that the entertainment industry once warned could violate federal copyright laws.

Though industry representatives have said in legal filings that they will stand aside and let Edward Felten speak at the USENIX conference in Washington, D C, the case nonetheless is forcing many to question the content and intent of new digital copyright laws.

"This case is about censorship and self-censorship," Felten's attorneys wrote in their most recent brief in the case. Felten has sued to gain permission to give the speech this time around. "At its heart is the private defendants' assertion of the right to threaten professors, graduate students and other researchers with litigation in order to prevent them from publishing scientific papers," the brief says.

The groundwork for the case was laid late last year, when the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) opened a hacking contest, challenging people to try to break watermarks it was considering adopting to protect online music.

Felten and a team of computer experts entered the contest but later withdrew upon learning they wouldn't be allowed to present their results. Instead, they independently pursued the research and cracked several watermarks. Watermarks place a unique bit of code onto a file that is supposed to be difficult to remove without damaging the quality of the sound or image.

However, before Felten was scheduled to give a presentation about his findings at a conference in April, he received a letter from SDMI and the Recording Industry Association of America, saying he risked violating federal copyright laws if he talked about his research. So Felten backed down and later sued, asking for the rights to give the speech at a later date.

In response, SDMI and the RIAA have said they never intended to sue Felten and have asked a judge to toss out his case.

"He can make his presentation anywhere he wants anytime he wants," a representative for SDMI said Tuesday. "We have no plans to file suit."

Despite those promises, Felten is planning to pursue the suit, in the hopes that other researchers won't be discouraged from presenting research that exposes security flaws.

"Not only in computer science, but also across all scientific fields, skeptical analysis of technical claims made by others, and the presentation of detailed evidence to support such analysis, is the heart of the scientific method," Felten said in a recent court filing. "To outlaw such analysis is to outlaw the scientific method itself."

Lee Tien, an Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney who's representing Felten, said the suit must continue in order to clear the way for other researchers. Already, he said, many researchers are in limbo, wondering if they, too, will be subject to legal threats if they present their work. The Association for Computing Machinery has filed a brief in the case, saying that one foreign programmer already has pulled out of the group's digital rights management workshop this fall, fearing legal fallout.

What's more, Tien said the actions of the entertainment industry protect weak security by turning a blind eye to defects in copyright protection technology.

"They're as real as a defect in a Ford Pinto," Tien said. "Just because you don't talk about them doesn't mean they go away."

Felten's attorneys have said he is eager to give the speech Wednesday. Shortly after the legal brouhaha began, someone released a version of Felten's paper on the Web. It quickly made the rounds, much to the chagrin of both the entertainment industry--which worried the paper would give instructions on how to crack their security technology--and the Felten team--which was frustrated that a rough draft was zipping across the Web.

Wednesday's presentation is expected to be a comprehensive explanation of the weaknesses in the watermarks. At a speech at Stanford University in May, Felten said his team had broken one of the watermarks by accident, though at the time he declined to elaborate. The speech, which begins at 3 pm PDT, will be Webcast.

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