Monday, 13 October 2003
John Halderman cracked an encryption and DRM system called MediaMax CD3, a product of SunComm Technologies. Why? He is a PhD candiate in Princeton University's Department of Computer Science, writing his thesis in computer security. In classic academic style, Halderman published the resulting paper on the web. In classic cranky-three-year-old style, SunnComm threatened to sue Halderman on several grounds, including a claim under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA). SunComm's CEO's quote in the first news cycle since this story broke was precious: "No matter what their credentials or rationale, it is wrong to use one's knowledge and the cover of academia to facilitate piracy and theft of digital property." SunComm backed down from its lawsuit threat within 48 hours — after an enormous public outcry fueled by the blogosphere.
This episode is important for two reasons. First, it shows the excesses of the DMCA and underscores how ridiculously overbroad its language is (in addition to being bad policy). SunComm must have interpreted Halderman's paper as either a "device" intended to "circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a [copyrighted] work" under DMCA § 1201(a) or as trafficking in such devices. No person who speaks ordinary English would ever confuse a research paper with a device. Besides, Halderman defeated the system merely by holding down his shift key, so how "effective" could it be? Effectiveness of the DRM system is, after all, an essential element of the DMCA claim. SunComm may have deserved the $10 million decline in its stock-price value the day after the blogosphere picked up this story.
Second, it shows the power of the blogosphere. The first Internet publisher to become a legitimate force in American politics was Matt Drudge when he broke the Monica Lewinsky story in 1997 — after the traditional press (namely, Newsweek) declined to print the story. The Internet's role in politics was considered routine barely five years later, when bloggers brought down Trent Lott — again, after the traditional news media dismissed an important story. The SunComm episode clearly shows that Internet publishers' influence has outgrown the first level of the political sphere, where rumor and innuendo are weapons in their own right. This time, bloggers slapped around a software company working for several major record labels — in two industries driven by bottom-line considerations. Blogging tools make Internet publishing easier than ever, and the number of bloggers is growing daily. Their voices are heard by one another — and now by the major media and corporate America. If we can continue to avoid demagoguery, this may be a good thing.