SDMI Hacker Sues for Right to Publish

Which has more value in the 21st century: the constitutionally-guaranteed right to free speech or the music industry's right to protect its encryption technology? Princeton University professor Edward W. Felten intends to find out.

Felten, the encryption expert who, with a group of colleagues, successfully met a challenge put forth last year by the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI), filed suit June 6 in a US federal court in New Jersey, seeking the right to present a paper detailing his group's methodology and results at the USENIX Security Symposium in Washington, DC, to be held August 13–17. Backed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the suit by Felten and his associates names as defendants the Recording Industry Association of America, the SDMI, Verance Corporation, and the US Justice Department headed by Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Felten and colleagues at Rice University, the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, and elsewhere cracked five of the SDMI's six watermarking technologies during the organization's "Hack Challenge" last fall. Felten refused to sign a non-disclosure agreement after cracking the watermarks. Threats and pressure from the RIAA and SDMI made Felten withdraw from presenting the peer-reviewed paper on the project at the Fourth International Information Hiding Workshop, held in Pittsburgh, PA in April. A few days before the symposium, Felten a received communication from RIAA senior vice president Matt Oppenheim, warning him that discussing or publishing details of his research might violate the Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA) and could result in "enforcement actions." Curiously, RIAA general counsel Cary Sherman has made recent public statements that Felten and colleagues are in no danger of legal action.

The DMCA was passed at the insistence of the entertainment and software industries, which feared the economic consequences of widespread piracy. The law makes it illegal to disseminate techniques or distribute technologies for de-encrypting copyrighted material.

The DCMA has no exemptions for personal, academic, or scientific uses for such information, meaning that the law as written may be in direct conflict with the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which guarantees the right to free speech. This conflict is why Felten's attorneys included the Justice Department and Attorney General Ashcroft as plaintiffs: the issue is much more than a squabble over intellectual property. "What I hope to get out of this is to be able to publish our scientific paper without being sued," Felten told reporters on the day his suit was filed. "When scientists are intimidated from publishing their work, there is a clear 1st Amendment problem," EFF legal director Cindy Cohn told the Los Angeles Times. Felten's paper has gotten wide but clandestine exposure on the Internet. His lawsuit has the full backing of Princeton University, according to an informational website.

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