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Group Says It Beat Anti-Piracy Technology

Internet: If true, it would be a setback to efforts to protect music copyright owners from digital pirates.

October 24, 2000|JON HEALEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A group of engineers at three research centers claims to have defeated four key elements of the Secure Digital Music Initiative, an inter-industry effort aimed at protecting music copyright owners from digital pirates.

If true, it would be another setback for a once-promising initiative by music, software and consumer electronics companies aimed at alleviating the labels' and artists' fears about "downloadable" music. Many in the recording and consumer electronics industries have lost faith in the project, which has missed several deadlines for developing standardized approaches to protecting copyrights.

A leading SDMI official, Talal Shamoon of InterTrust Technologies Inc., said that the group's claim was premature and based on a misunderstanding of the data. "We're still in the early stages of a fairly extensive evaluation process," Shamoon said.

At issue is watermarking, technology used to identify whether a song was copyrighted and authorized for duplication or playing on a portable device. Four companies proposed watermarks for the SDMI, and organizers of the initiative invited the public this year to try to defeat them.

The "hack SDMI" challenge drew the attention of a group of nine computer scientists and engineers at Princeton University, Rice University and Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, among hundreds of other entrants. The group, first identified by the online newsmagazine Salon.com, recently posted a Web site declaring that it had found ways to remove the watermarks without damaging the sound quality of the songs to which they were attached.

"We have no ironclad proof, only evidence," the site states. Although the results may be unique to the samples used in the test, the group said, "such possibilities seem very unlikely, especially since we obtained a number of successful results on all watermark technologies, using various techniques."

Rumors have been circulating for weeks that the SDMI watermarks had been defeated, but SDMI officials have repeatedly denied them. Shamoon said that the SDMI testing committee must still evaluate more than 400 attacks on the watermarks, including the group's, to measure how much they affected sound quality and whether they could be repeated.

Shamoon added that the watermarks being tested, along with two protection technologies that didn't use watermarks, were not necessarily complete systems. Some combination of the technologies could still prove to be successful, even if all were defeated individually, he said.

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Times staff writer Chuck Philips contributed to this report.

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