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SDMI hack popular despite Linux boycott

So far, the music industry has tried to fight the tide of digital music trading by using the courts. Now it's using hackers

A threatened Linux community boycott doesn't seem to be putting a chill on a hacking challenge sponsored by the music industry.

Leonardo Chiariglione, executive director of the Secure Digital Music Initiative, said "thousands" of people have responded to the SDMI's contest, which launched Friday and promises to split $10,000 among hackers who crack any of the technologies being promoted to protect digital music.

However, Chiariglione couldn't say whether those visiting the site were merely curious or actually planned to compete for the prize money.

Linux Journal technology editor Don Marti sponsored a boycott of the event, saying that the music industry is using hackers as a "free consulting" service to help it lock down its digital music and prevent people from legally sharing it.

But the two men talked Monday, and Marti has softened his stance just a bit. "I'm still concerned, and I'm still researching, but I'm less concerned," Marti said.

Chiariglione said Marti's fears that independent bands would be locked out of the mix were unfounded. "Maybe it was a momentary reaction, a kind of gut feeling this guy had," he said.

In the face of rampant music swapping online, the entertainment industry is trying to come up with a technical method of securing digital music. It's hoping that hackers will help it do that.

At a meeting in Brussels, Belgium, last week, the SDMI whittled the list of security technologies to be tested down to six. It will release the results of the hacking challenge at its next meeting in Los Angeles in October. After that, the body will settle on some standards for inserting the technology into digital content that can only be played on SDMI-compatible consumer electronics devices.

Still, Marti said he wouldn't encourage people to participate in the hack. "I think SDMI is becoming less and less relevant," he said, as the popularity of digital music continues to grow. And many people agree.

The music industry came late to the game of digital music, in part because it underestimated both the moxie of new technology companies and the power of the Internet to promote songs. Meanwhile, sharing digital files -- both legitimate and pirated -- has become increasingly popular.

So far, the music industry has tried to fight the tide of digital music trading by using the courts. The Recording Industry Association of America, which is a founding member of the SDMI, has sued many new media companies, including Napster and MP3.com.

However, Chiariglione said the SDMI as a whole isn't considering the suits while hammering out a technology strategy, even if some of its members are.

"None of these issues are of any concern to SDMI," Chiariglione said. Although some SDMI members are parties in the suit, Chiariglione said it's not relevant to the "SDMI as a body. This is something for the business side."

The SDMI's challenge has been to meet its goal of giving copyright holders as much control as possible over their music while still mollifying consumer electronics makers and consumers. After all, no one wants to buy a device that will play only a limited amount of music.

What's more, there's really no guaranteed way to maintain complete control over digital music distribution, as much as the industry might wish to. For example, there's always the possibility that technology claiming to be hacker-proof today will be cracked tomorrow.

Chiariglione wouldn't comment on that possibility. "I will answer that question when it happens," he said.

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