This story was written by Keith Dawson for the Industry Standard's Media Grok email newsletter. It is archived here for informational purposes only because The Standard's site is no more. This material is Copyright 1999-2001 by Standard Media.

Watermarks ... or Freedom?

Apr 24 2001 08:38 AM PDT

The major record labels warn a Princeton professor to stay mum about how he hacked their security systems.

Last year the recording industry waved the Digital Millennium Copyright Act at a bunch of hackers, Linux advocates and other assorted lowlifes. This year the labels are going uptown: The Secure Digital Music Initiative is threatening a Princeton University professor with legal action if his group publishes its research results tomorrow.

The dispute is over a contest the SDMI ran last fall, in which the world was invited to hack six digital watermarking techniques that were under development. The SDMI set stringent limits on what participants could do and how much they could say afterwards; the Princeton-led team said it never agreed to any such limits.

An SDMI lawyer, Matthew Oppenheim, sent a letter to the lead researcher, Edward Felton, warning that if the group published details of its research, it might be liable under the DMCA. Most outlets stressed the DMCA threat in their coverage; only a few detailed the other aspect of the legal warning, that the researchers may have violated the agreement the SDMI insisted that contest participants "sign" (actually click through) before attempting to crack its watermarking protections.

On Friday a copy of the letter, and an early draft of the researchers' paper, showed up on, the Web site of a New York activist.

Some outlets contented themselves with interviewing Dr. Felton and Oppenheim. Inside delved more deeply, noting that the Princeton-led group was not the only team scheduled to present SDMI-cracking results in Pittsburgh tomorrow. Inside's Charles C. Mann and Roger Parloff interviewed the leader of a French team that claimed to have cracked three of the SDMI's six challenges (Felton's team managed four), and has long since posted full research results on the Web.

While a number of stories alluded to the earlier DMCA case involving the DVD-cracking code DeCSS, Inside was the only outlet, among those Grok discovered, to note that the watermarking technology involved in the SDMI affair is different from the encryption technology used in DeCSS. For crypto, researchers can examine and publish details of the algorithms involved without destroying the usefulness of code. But for watermarking technology, continued secrecy turns out to be all-important.

Record Panel Threatens Researcher With Lawsuit
New York Times
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SDMI Hack Draws Legal Threats

Music Body Tries to Quash Study of Antipiracy Steps
Wall Street Journal
(Paid subscription required.)

Music-Encryption Crackers Ponder SDMI Warning Over Tech Paper

Secure-Music Group Threatens Researchers Who Plan to Publish on Hacking Success

RIAA Challenges SDMI Attack