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Music Group Tries To Suppress Piracy Study

A group of researchers who foiled four different copyright protection technologies in a contest launched last year by the music industry is now being asked by the record companies to suppress its findings, one of the researchers said Tuesday.

The research group – composed of students and professors from Princeton and Rice Universities and an employee of Xerox Palo Alto Research Center – had initially planned to present its findings Thursday at a Pittsburgh conference on information security but was then threatened with legal action by the forum, the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI), a forum representing music and technology companies.

SDMI claims that disclosure of the findings could undermine the industry’s efforts to prevent unlicensed copying of music.

“Our presentation was scheduled for 10 a.m. (EST) on Thursday, but at this point it remains to be seen whether we will be going ahead with the presentation,” said Edward Felten, a researcher from Princeton and a member of the group.

“Clearly, there’s been a threat of lawsuits,” said Felten, adding that he was now in talks with one of the companies that provided the copyright protection technology and the recording industry “to try to understand what their complaints are.”

The SDMI was formed to develop a standard for secure digital music distribution. Founding members include the world’s biggest record labels – including Vivendi Universal’s Universal Music, Sony Music, Warner Music, EMI Group Plc and Bertelsmann AG’s BMG.

In September, SDMI launched a $10,000 contest challenging people to hack into copyright protection technologies.

By November, it announced it would pay prize money to two hackers after weeks of speculation and embarrassment. Felten’s group claimed they had defeated four of the group’s proposed watermarking technologies, which try to guard against hacking by using hidden signals in the digital music files.

Felten’s group was not among the winners because it had pulled out of the contest before the final round due to the group’s belief that the final round was unfair.

On April 9, Felten received a letter from Matthew Oppenheim, head of the SDMI Foundation and a senior lawyer for the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) urging him to refrain from disseminating his findings or face potential legal action.

“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 (DCMA),” Oppenheim said in the letter.

The DMCA, passed in 1998 as an extension to copyright law, bars efforts to defeat copyright protection methods.

Oppenheim’s letter was leaked by an anonymous party to several Web sites along with an early version of Felton’s conference paper. Both Felten and Oppenheim said they did not know the identity of the person who posted the materials.

“This is an issue between the technology companies and the professor. I’m trying to get them together to find common ground. I was very disappointed that during that process someone published a paper, but I understand the process is on track and I’m hopeful for a resolution,” he said.

Verance Corp., a privately held company that provided watermarking technologies in the SDMI challenge, is also currently in negotiations with Felten.

“We’d like to think there is a way for academic information to be disseminated in a manner that furthers academic research but also balances the legitimate interests of those with trade secrets and other proprietary information,” Verance Chairman David Leibowitz said.

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