strong objections from the recording industry, a group of computer
scientists who had successfully defeated an industry copy-protection
system abruptly withdrew the paper detailing their research from a
scientific conference yesterday.
The dispute grew out of a technical contest created by a music
industry standards organization last September that offered a
$10,000 prize for anyone who could successfully remove a digital
"watermark" from a musical recording.
The four-part challenge put forth by the organization, the Secure
Digital Music Initiative, was met by a group of computer scientists
from Princeton and Rice Universities. But the scientists
subsequently disputed the industry's claim that the technical
details of their achievement could not be publicly disclosed because
of limits established by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of
The dispute underscores an escalating conflict between advocates
of freedom of speech and academic freedom, on one hand, and an
industry that is trying to extend intellectual property rights into
the digital world.
The Princeton and Rice researchers have been in negotiations with
the recording industry about their right to publish and although
they said as recently as Wednesday evening that they hoped to reach
an agreement that would permit them to present at least a portion of
their findings, the talks collapsed.
The industry has maintained that information developed as part of
the research is proprietary and that disclosure violates the 1998
law, which restricts disclosure of methods used to break
One scientist, Edward W. Felten, a Princeton computer scientist
who also served as a technical expert for the Justice Department
during the Microsoft
antitrust trial, announced the group's decision yesterday at the
conference, the Fourth International Information Hiding Workshop, in
Pittsburgh. Standing outside a conference room, he read a statement
explaining the decision.
"Litigation is costly, time-consuming, and uncertain, regardless
of the merits of the other side's case," Dr. Felten said. "We remain
committed to free speech and to the value of scientific debate to
our country and the world."
In the afternoon the recording industry issued a statement,
saying that the organization had not legally threatened the
scientists. "The Secure Digital Music Initiative Foundation
(S.D.M.I.) does not — nor did it ever — intend to bring any legal
action against Professor Felten or his co-authors," the statement
said. The organization said it sent a letter to the scientists
because it had an obligation to the record companies who own the
A copy of the scientists' paper and a copy of the letter from a
recording industry official were placed on the Web site of a
freedom-of-speech advocate (www.cryptome.org) last Friday.
The letter, written by Matthew Oppenheim, head of litigation for
the Recording Industry Association of America, reads in part: "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."
Organizers of the conference said they were concerned about the
effect of the industry's actions on academic freedom.
"This was an excellent technical paper," said John McHugh, the
chairman of the program committee and a senior member of the
technical staff at the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie
Mellon University. "This was pure and simple intimidation. This
paper didn't do anything that a bright technical person couldn't
Moreover, he said two French researchers, Julien Boeuf and Julien
P. Stern, would present a similar paper today.
Dr. Stern said he had successfully attacked three of the four
watermarking techniques used in the challenge and would detail one
The technical founder of the conference said that he was
skeptical about industry intentions in challenging the researchers,
particularly since, he said, the basic digital watermark approach
being pursued by the Secure Digital Music Initiative group had been
disproved three years ago.
"The specific echo-hiding techniques that S.D.M.I. wanted to keep
secret were broken three years ago, so what is the fuss about?" the
founder, Ross Anderson, a Cambridge University computer scientist,
said. "The big embarrassing question for S.D.M.I. is why did they