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Hacked Rio to pose legal problems?

U.K. and American Programmers hack the MP3 player -- and open legal issues.
Written by ZDNet Staff, Contributor

Curious programmers may have set multimedia hardware maker Diamond Multimedia Systems Inc. back a few steps in its legal battle with the giants of the music industry.

On Tuesday, programmers from the Linux group Snowblind Alliance posted software for Diamond's digital music player, the Rio PMP300, which allows users to copy data to a PC from the Rio -- a process that Diamond had testified could not be done.

In doing so, Snowblind has put Diamond on what could be shaky legal ground in its defence against a suit filed by the Recording Industry Association of America aimed at halting shipments of the Rio. How shaky remains to be seen. "I could still see a judge going either way," said Rich Gray, antitrust and intellectual property attorney with Bergeson, Eliopoulos, Grady & Gray. "This is a tough, tough question."

Not so, said Bob Kohn, music copyright expert, MP3 supporter, and chairman of Internet music vendor GoodNoise Corp. "This shows how resourceful computer programmers are, but it has no legal effect," he said. "There are a host of sites on the Web that show how to break serial copy management schemes for a variety of players, including Sony's Minidisk."

"The law does not require any device to be foolproof," he said.

Last September, Diamond released its Rio digital music player, which quickly became a hit among technophiles. The device plays small digital audio files known as MP3 files. Each minute of music only requires 500KB to 1MB, depending on the quality. In contrast, everyday audio CDs typically require around 10MB of data to represent a single minute of sound. Yet, Diamond's choice to use MP3 as the player's format has the music industry up in arms.

The RIAA, whose members include the Big 5 music labels -- Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group, BMG Entertainment, EMI Recorded Music, and Universal Music Group -- sued Diamond in October in an attempt to stop it from shipping the Rio player. After a 10-day delay, Diamond won the right to ship the cigarette-pack-sized device while the suit continued. The RIAA has filed to appeal the decision in April.

But the activities of the Snowblind Alliance call into question some of the fundamental assumptions in the case. In its October Memorandum of Opposition, Diamond stated, "The Rio player is not capable of storing any of the files stored in its internal memory to a personal computer or other device." Even Judge Audrey Collins had been convinced of the truth of the statement. "The material facts of this case are undisputed. ... Notably, the Rio has no digital audio output capability, and therefore is incapable of passing on digital musical files to other Rio devices, or to other manufacturers' devices," she wrote in an Oct. 26 preliminary judgement.

Neither Diamond nor the judge accounted for hackers.

The Snowblind programmers, looking to create an open-source Linux-based player for the Diamond Rio, reverse-engineered the Rio Manager application that Diamond bundled with the Rio for downloading music into the device. Like many Linux applications, the group published the source code on the Net -- freely available to everyone -- on Jan. 14.

Within a week, two programmers -- one in the United Kingdom and another California -- had submitted updates for the code that would enable the Rio to upload music, or any other data, to the PC. "I realise that this has certainly going to be a few questions about why we did it," said the British programmer who created a DOS program using the Snowblind code. "I think the uploading feature makes it a nicer product. I state in big capitals that you shouldn't use it for piracy." The programmer would only give his first name, Matt.

While the RIAA would only say that the organisation was reviewing the new development, Diamond maintained that the ability made little legal difference. "We thought it was secure, and evidently it is not as secure as we thought," said Ken Wirt, vice president of corporate marketing for Diamond. "In future products, we were thinking of beefing up security anyway."

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