- By Grant Gross -
When Princeton Professor Edward Felten's team presents a paper tonight on breaking the
Secure Digital Music Initiative's copy-prevention technology, his fight against the
recording industry and the U.S. copyright law it has used in the past to silence his
research will be far from over.
Felten's team is finally delivering the controversial paper, Reading Between the Lines:
Lessons from the SDMI Challenge at the 10th USENIX Security Symposium in Washington, D.C.
But Felten and Electronic Frontier Foundation legal director Cindy Cohn said at a morning
press conference that they plan to continue
their lawsuit against the Recording Industry
Association of America, SDMI, and the U.S. government, even though the RIAA has told
Felten he has permission to present the paper.
Felten and crew, with help from the EFF, are suing to have the
anti-circumvention provisions of the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act declared unconstitutional
because it's been used to prevent scientists like Felten from publishing their reviews of
weaknesses in software. Under the anti-circumvention provisions, the same part of the law the
U.S. FBI used to arrest Russian programmer Dmitry Sklyarov for his Abobe eBook reader, the
threatened in April to sue Felten for attempting to present his team's
findings on the weaknesses of the SDMI watermarking technology, which was supposed to prevent
music from being copied.
Felten and his team are unlikely to be arrested for presenting their paper, as Sklyarov
was after DefCon in Las Vegas last month, Cohn said, because the criminal provision of the
DMCA outlaws commercial gain from reverse engineered technologies. While Cohn said federal agents can
hardly find that Felten's team is profiting from its research, as Sklyarov was from selling
the eBook reader, the EFF felt it necessary to negotiate with the U.S. Justice Department to make
sure officers from the USENIX Association wouldn't be prosecuted for charging admission to the
decided not to present his paper earlier this year, and the SDMI Foundation has since backed
away from its legal threats, promising it would not sue for tonight's talk. The RIAA has even
denied it threatened to sue, saying it was all a misunderstanding, but Felten told reporters
today that his decision to pull the paper earlier came after hours of discussion with the
recording industry, during which the threats were clear. The EFF's Cohn added that even if
there's a promise not to sue Felten for tonight's presentation, the recording industry
has made no such promises about future presentations or research based on the Felten team's
"What we want is not only permission to speak today," Felten told a mixture of national media,
D.C. media and technology reporters. "We don't want to run and ask for permission every time
we want to present something. As far as I know, they're still taking the position that
we still need to ask their permission to present a paper."
Felten says the anti-circumvention provisions of the DMCA don't stop the bad guys from
violating copyrights, but a law that prevents scientific presentations could stop researchers and technologists who are trying to make
programs better by reverse-engineering them.
"There is a danger that you really prevent the good guys from talking about how to do
better," he said. "You get in a situation where ... you kind of outlaw consumer reports for
these kinds of products."
Cohn said the Felten case has had a "chilling effect" on other scientific presentations (see also the
declarations of several other researchers
on the EFF's Felten case page). She
stopped short of advocating the repeal of the entire DMCA, and she said there doesn't
seem to be Congressional support even for repealing the anti-circumvention provision.
But EFF representatives have talked to a couple of friendly members of Congress about the
problems with the DMCA, and the EFF plans to release a list of suggested changes within a
couple of weeks.
"We need to educate people about why its a bad idea to have science stifled in the name
of so-called security and why we're all going to have worse products because of it," Cohn said.
Felten says the paper tonight will be a no-holds barred version of his team's findings, even though
the team had planned to present an edited paper earlier in the year because of the
threat of a lawsuit. "Since those threats materialized anyway, we felt there was not need to hold
anything back," he said.
Asked if a technically savvy person could circumvent the SDMI watermarks after reading the
paper, Felten responded: "I think it's safe to say that without this article, a technically competent
person would defeat this technology."
Felton's paper, 11 pages with diagrams, is scheduled to appear on the USENIX Web site Thursday. NewsForge
will link to it as soon as we see it.