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April 27, 2001

Scientists Drop Plan to Present Music-Copying Study

By JOHN MARKOFF

Facing strong objections from the recording industry, a group of computer scientists who had successfully defeated an industry copy-protection system abruptly withdrew the paper detailing their research from a scientific conference yesterday.

The dispute grew out of a technical contest created by a music industry standards organization last September that offered a $10,000 prize for anyone who could successfully remove a digital "watermark" from a musical recording.

The four-part challenge put forth by the organization, the Secure Digital Music Initiative, was met by a group of computer scientists from Princeton and Rice Universities. But the scientists subsequently disputed the industry's claim that the technical details of their achievement could not be publicly disclosed because of limits established by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998.

The dispute underscores an escalating conflict between advocates of freedom of speech and academic freedom, on one hand, and an industry that is trying to extend intellectual property rights into the digital world.

The Associated Press
Edward Felten, an associate professor at Princeton.

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The Princeton and Rice researchers have been in negotiations with the recording industry about their right to publish and although they said as recently as Wednesday evening that they hoped to reach an agreement that would permit them to present at least a portion of their findings, the talks collapsed.

The industry has maintained that information developed as part of the research is proprietary and that disclosure violates the 1998 law, which restricts disclosure of methods used to break copy-protection systems.

One scientist, Edward W. Felten, a Princeton computer scientist who also served as a technical expert for the Justice Department during the Microsoft antitrust trial, announced the group's decision yesterday at the conference, the Fourth International Information Hiding Workshop, in Pittsburgh. Standing outside a conference room, he read a statement explaining the decision.

"Litigation is costly, time-consuming, and uncertain, regardless of the merits of the other side's case," Dr. Felten said. "We remain committed to free speech and to the value of scientific debate to our country and the world."

In the afternoon the recording industry issued a statement, saying that the organization had not legally threatened the scientists. "The Secure Digital Music Initiative Foundation (S.D.M.I.) does not nor did it ever intend to bring any legal action against Professor Felten or his co-authors," the statement said. The organization said it sent a letter to the scientists because it had an obligation to the record companies who own the watermarking technology.

A copy of the scientists' paper and a copy of the letter from a recording industry official were placed on the Web site of a freedom-of-speech advocate (www.cryptome.org) last Friday.

The letter, written by Matthew Oppenheim, head of litigation for the Recording Industry Association of America, reads in part: "Any disclosure of information gained from participating in the public challenge would be outside the scope of activities permitted by the agreement and could subject you and your research team to actions under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act."

Organizers of the conference said they were concerned about the effect of the industry's actions on academic freedom.

"This was an excellent technical paper," said John McHugh, the chairman of the program committee and a senior member of the technical staff at the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. "This was pure and simple intimidation. This paper didn't do anything that a bright technical person couldn't easily reproduce."

Moreover, he said two French researchers, Julien Boeuf and Julien P. Stern, would present a similar paper today.

Dr. Stern said he had successfully attacked three of the four watermarking techniques used in the challenge and would detail one attack.

The technical founder of the conference said that he was skeptical about industry intentions in challenging the researchers, particularly since, he said, the basic digital watermark approach being pursued by the Secure Digital Music Initiative group had been disproved three years ago.

"The specific echo-hiding techniques that S.D.M.I. wanted to keep secret were broken three years ago, so what is the fuss about?" the founder, Ross Anderson, a Cambridge University computer scientist, said. "The big embarrassing question for S.D.M.I. is why did they pick it?"


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