SDMI attempts to quash researcher's findings

SDMI, the Secure Digital Music Initiative, returned to the spotlight earlier this week when it asked an academic who participated in its highly publicized hacking challenge to not present his results at a conference.

Princeton University professor Edward Felten and his team were one of only two groups to claim successful attacks on the watermark technology offered up by SDMI in the hacking challenge. Felten was scheduled to present a paper detailing his team's techniques and results at the Information Hiding Workshop conference, held April 25-27 in Pittsburgh.

Before he could do so, however, Matt Oppenheim, SDMI Foundation secretary and senior vice president of business and legal affairs for the Recording Industry Association of America Inc. (RIAA), sent him a letter saying Felten might be in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, as well as the terms of the hacking challenge, if he presented the paper. Some of the technologies offered in the hacking challenge, specifically the Verance Corp. watermark, are already in use commercially, and publishing the paper would endanger their effectiveness, according to Oppenheim's letter.

SDMI is both the name of the organization and the technology that is attempting to put forward a standard for secure, copyright-friendly digital music. The organization is made up of hundreds of computer, electronics and music companies, but is widely seen as being dominated by the RIAA and Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). SDMI plans to use digital watermarks -- supposedly inaudible additions to songs -- to implement copyright protection, among other things, in digital music using its standard.

SDMI did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.

SDMI last September offered researchers, hackers and others a chance to try to break its encryption, offering up six technologies with a US$10,000 prize for each technology successfully attacked. In late October, Felten and his team announced that they had successfully removed the SDMI watermarks from the test materials, though SDMI argued that the team's techniques caused poor sound quality in the music files. [See "SDMI Cracked? Academics Say Yes, SDMI Says No," Oct. 24.]SDMI did eventually announce that two successful attacks were made, though the group declined to reveal who had perpetrated them.

If Felten publishes his results, he could be sued under the terms of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), Oppenheim's letter said. The DCMA makes it a crime to provide means to circumvent copyright protection devices, which Felten could be seen as doing by publishing a paper that details how to sidestep SDMI's watermarks. Beyond the DMCA, Oppenheim's letter also says Felten would be violating the terms agreed to in the hacking challenge, which bar participants from attacking the SDMI technologies outside of the challenge.

At least one observer is not so sure.

"Given the broad interpretation the district court gave the (DMCA), it seems far fetched that he (Felten) and his colleagues could be held responsible ... but a judge might decide otherwise," said Wendy Seltzer, a fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for the Internet and Society.

A ruling against Felten would be "a terrible blow to academic research," one that would concern computer scientists and cryptographers, she said. "It would seem absurd that he (Felten) could be punished for publishing this kind of paper."

Oppenheim's letter does not take an entirely hard-line stance, however, saying "we invite you (Felten) to work with the SDMI Foundation to find a way for you to share the academic components of your research while remaining true to your intention to not violate the law or the Agreement."

However, Oppenheim then goes on to write, "in the meantime, we urge you to withdraw the paper submitted for the upcoming Information Hiding Workshop, assure that it is removed from the Workshop distribution materials and destroyed, and avoid a public discussion of confidential information."

The paper is scheduled to be presented on Thursday at 10 a.m. Eastern time. According to a statement posted on Felten's Web site, no decision has yet been made as to whether he will go ahead with its presentation or not. Felten declined comment for this story.

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