A Princeton encryption expert and other researchers who cracked the music industry's prized anti-piracy initiative filed a lawsuit Wednesday to secure the right to publish their work despite objections and legal threats from the recording industry.
The civil suit, filed in New Jersey federal court, raises the stakes in an already bitter battle about sensitive information that could jeopardize commercial interests. The researchers claim a 1st Amendment right to discuss and publish the results of their work even though a federal digital copyright law appears to prohibit it.
Edward Felten, a professor and the leader of a group of scientists from Princeton and Rice universities, brought the suit with backing from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based civil liberties organization.
"What I hope to get out of this is to be able to publish our scientific paper without being sued," Felten said Wednesday.
The suit targets the Recording Industry Assn. of America and the anti-piracy effort known as the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) Foundation. It also names encryption firm Verance Corp. and the federal Department of Justice, which would enforce the criminal provisions of the federal law in question.
SDMI is an organization of music companies and equipment manufacturers that was created in early 1999 to develop a standard for piracy-deterring portable music players. Devices built to that standard would reject unauthorized copies of music files, such as those made through online file-swapping services such as Napster Inc.
In April, the RIAA and the foundation sent Felten a letter warning that publishing or discussing details of his successful code-breaking effort could subject him and his team to "enforcement actions" under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Verance, the company behind one of the defeated encryption methods, also sought to prevent public airing of Felten's results.
Cary Sherman, the RIAA's general counsel, said his group and the SDMI foundation have no intention of bringing a lawsuit against Felten or his team about the dispute. He called the Felten lawsuit "inexplicable."
The law at the heart of the dispute, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, was passed in 1998 and outlawed technologies that can pick the electronic locks placed on copyrighted works. The law makes it illegal to use, manufacture or distribute such technologies for any reason, with no exception for personal or academic uses.
"We have long argued that unless properly limited, the anti-distribution provisions of the DMCA would interfere with science. Now, they plainly have," said Cindy Cohn, legal director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "When scientists are intimidated from publishing their work, there is a clear 1st Amendment problem."
The controversy started last fall after SDMI's organizers offered cash rewards to anyone who found a way to circumvent the group's six proposed protection technologies, each designed to distinguish between authorized and unauthorized music copies.
Felten's research team soon announced that it had hacked five of the six protection technologies. But the team declined to submit its findings to SDMI for testing and verification because Felten refused to sign the required nondisclosure agreement.
A preliminary write-up of the group's work leaked out during the peer-review process (which involves sending early versions to others for critique), but Felten said the full report has yet to be made public.
Times staff writer Jon Healey contributed to this report.