Ashcroft to academics: DMCA not your problem

A group of scientists who filed a suit last June, asking for their research to be protected from reprisals under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), received a blow this week when U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft filed a motion to dismiss their case, claiming that it was "not ripe."

Princeton University Professor Edward Felten and his research team sued the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), representatives of the recording industry, the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) organization and a watermark technology maker Verance Corp., asking that they be able to present research on breaking copyright protection technologies without being held culpable under the DMCA.

The DMCA, enacted in 1998, is a federal statute that makes it illegal to provide technology that bypasses copyright circumvention controls.

Ashcroft rebuffed the suit in his motion to dismiss, however, claiming that the scientists were asking for protection from legislation that has not threatened them, adding that their research has proceeded unscathed under the DMCA.

"Their request is all the more extraordinary in light of the fact that the statute in question has never been applied to them; they have not foregone any conduct as a result of it; and, at least according to their allegations, their conduct fails outside its purview. Their claim is thus unripe," states the motion filed Wednesday.

Neither Felten nor the scientists' legal representatives at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) were immediately available for comment on the motion Thursday.

The scientists' concern with the DMCA arose earlier this year when Felten and his team cracked a digital watermark technology SDMI put forth during a much-publicized hacking challenge. Felten was scheduled to present the team's findings at the Hiding Workshop conference, held April 25-27 in Pittsburgh, but chose not to after he claimed to have received a letter from the SDMI threatening a lawsuit.

When Felten and his team decided to present the paper at a USENIX Security Conference in Washington, D.C., last August, they filed suit against the defendants, asking to be able to present the paper, and future research, without reprisals.

The defendants have claimed all along, however, that they had no intention of suing the scientists.

In a statement released by the Recording Industry Association of America Inc. (RIAA) shortly after the suit was filed against it and the other defendants, the RIAA said "Professor Felten's decision to sue the RIAA and SDMI Foundation is inexplicable. We have unequivocally and repeatedly stated that we have no intention of bringing a lawsuit against Professor Felten or his colleagues."

Despite this, the scientists and the EFF claim that the DMCA would be used by the groups to stifle academic research.

However, Ashcroft said in his motion that the DMCA explicitly states that free speech for activities using consumer electronics, telecommunication and computing products shall not be diminished and criminal penalties under the statute do not apply to education institutions.

Furthermore, the motion says that the scientists asked the court to "take the constitutionally extraordinary step of striking down a federal statute" that does not even apply to them.

But while the DMCA may not fall as a result of the scientists' case, they are not the only critics of the law. In a high-profile case that spotlights concerns surrounding the DMCA, Russian programmer Dmitry Sklyarov was arrested last July following the Def Con hacker convention in Las Vegas for distributing a software tool designed to circumvent copyright protections built into Adobe Systems Inc.'s eBooks. Sklyarov remains in jail, and his detention continues to fuel the fire of criticism against the DMCA.

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