Out-Law / Your Daily Need-To-Know

Student escapes Shift key lawsuit

Out-Law News | 13 Oct 2003 | 12:00 am | 1 min. read

A student who published research showing that the latest CD copy-protection software can be overcome simply by pressing the Shift key on a computer will not be sued, according to SunnComm Technologies. The developer says it does not want to "chill" academic research.

Last Monday, Princeton student Alex Halderman published a report on his web site, analysing SunnComm's recently launched copy-protection system which was included on a CD by Anthony Hamilton on BMG's label.

The software is designed to prevent further copies of the album being made but, according to the report, simply holding down the Shift key when a protected CD is inserted on a Windows PC should prevent the software from being loaded at all.

The report also detailed how the protection could be evaded in the event that the software did load.

SunnComm announced on Thursday that it intended to take Halderman to court, as the publication of the research had significantly damaged SunnComm's reputation and caused the market value of SunnComm to drop by more than $10 million.

SunnComm also claimed that Halderman had violated the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which prohibits people from using or distributing devices that can bypass copyrights and copy prevention measures. Such action is a criminal offence under the DMCA.

The threat of legal action – particularly in the criminal courts – provoked controversy. Fred von Lohmann, lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, asked why scientists should fear litigation for simply reporting their findings. "What more proof do you need that the DMCA is chilling legitimate research?" he asked.

The question appears to have resonated with SunnComm, for the company announced on Friday that it would not be suing Halderman after all. The reason for the change of heart is, according to Peter Jacobs, SunnComm CEO:

"Because SunnComm is, itself, a company which relies on research and development for its survival, we feel that bringing legal action for damages against researchers in a higher learning environment may contribute to a chilling effect on the type of research that faculty, staff, and students elect to pursue. Therefore, we've decided to move along and not pursue legal remedies in deference to 'the bigger picture.'"

The company puts Halderman's description of the software as "flawed" down to a misconception by the student that the software was expected to be completely foolproof. Not so, says Jacobs:

"The 'marching orders' we received from the music industry was to build an integrated system for the vast majority of consumers who, when given the option, would elect to use a licensed and legal method for accessing their CD music because, in doing so, they would be honouring the wishes of their favourite artists. For the first time in America, MediaMax gives CD buyers a structure to make that choice."