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Federal judge stymies professor's challenge of digital-copyright law

By The Associated Press
11.29.01
Edward Felten

TRENTON, N.J. — A Princeton University professor who feared strong-arm legal tactics would keep him from telling the world how his research hacked through digital security measures has lost in court.

Edward Felten sued the Recording Industry Association of America, charging that the group used threats of lawsuits to stop him from presenting his work at academic conferences.

U.S. District Court Judge Garrett E. Brown dismissed Felten’s lawsuit, ruling from the bench that the professor had no legal complaint against the RIAA.

“We are happy that the court recognized what we have been saying all along: there is no dispute here. As we have said time and again, Professor Felten is free to publish his findings,” Cary Sherman, the RIAA’s senior executive vice president, said in a statement.

Felten, on leave from Princeton and now at Stanford University, did not return messages seeking comment yesterday.

Lawyers for the Electronic Freedom Foundation joined Felten in a fight to overturn a 1998 federal law that makes discussion of methods for circumventing copy-protection technology illegal.

They plan to appeal Brown’s ruling.

“The judge essentially took the position, ‘Well, they didn’t sue you so what do you care?’ ” said Cindy Cohn, the group’s legal director.

Brown ignored evidence that showed Felten and other researchers were being cowered by legal threats from the RIAA, Cohn said. Graduate students working with him have their projects on hold and another scientist has delayed publishing a book about the findings, Cohn said.

After accepting a challenge from a coalition of music, telecommunications and consumer electronic companies to crack its codes, Felten said his team had done just that.

He and his researchers disabled five of six security technologies, known as watermarks, and Felten planned to detail that research at a conference in April.

The professor called off his talk after legal threats from a lawyer with the RIAA. Officials later said they never intended to sue.

“Felten did what they asked because he was scared. Their threat was successful,” Cohn said.

In June, the RIAA again said it would not sue Felten when he announced plans to present his findings at a different conference, the Usenix Security Symposium in Washington, D.C.

That amounted to special permission from the RIAA for Felten to speak openly, Cohn charged.

“But that special protection was only for that conference. So he’s left in the position that next time he wants to talk he has to ask permission,” Cohn said.

The government has used the 1998 law, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, to charge a Russian computer programmer with circumventing U.S. copyright protections on electronic-book software made by Adobe Systems.

In June, Felten petitioned the U.S. District Court here for a clarification on whether discussing research like his constitutes free speech exempt from the copyright law.

Felten’s June lawsuit asked the court to overturn parts of the law to prevent civil and criminal action against any researchers who may publicize copy protection technologies and their weaknesses.


Previous
Professor to speak on anti-piracy technology despite legal questions
Edward Felten had asked a federal court to rule on whether such discussions constitute free speech exempt from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. 08.15.01

Related

Russian cryptographer indicted in electronic copyright case

Prosecutors say charges against Dmitry Sklyarov, employer are first under Digital Millennium Copyright Act. 08.29.01

Computer scientist, ACLU challenge digital-copyright law
Federal lawsuit argues programmers, researchers should have free-speech protections to explore weaknesses in programs and share their research with others. 07.26.02

Critics: Copyright law turns ISPs into speech police
Free-speech advocates worry Digital Millennium Copyright Act gives copyright holders ability to push unpopular viewpoints to fringes or off Internet completely. 04.08.02

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