No Legal Action Against Shift-key Bypass Discoverer

Research conducted by John Halderman, a Ph.D. student at Princeton University, on MediaMax CD3 copy prevention technology developed by SunnComm Technologies showed that users can bypass that protection by holding the shift key every time they insert one such protected CD into a computer. Haldeman also discovered the process to disable the protection software if it had already been installed, and published such results in his website. Although a Bancorp analyst seems to have preceded Halderman in the shift-key finding and in making it public, it was Halderman who, through public statements of SunnComm CEO Peter Jacobs, became the target of a potential suit under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which prohibits to manufacture, import, offer to the public, provide, or otherwise traffic in any technology, product, service, device, component, or part thereof, that is primarily designed or produced for the purpose of circumventing a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under the Copyright Act. Interestingly, Halderman’s mentor, Professor Edward Felten, had faced a similar threat in 2001 because of a paper on which he collaborated with other professors.

The DMCA threat of suit assumes that even the publication of a research paper on the flaws of copy prevention technologies is “trafficking in” a circumvention technology. Such an interpretation has become one of the most controversial parts of the DMCA, for the fear that it will not only chill innovation, but also scholarly research.

And as the Recording Industry did with Felten, at the outset SunnComm appeared ready to argue such a position in court. Yet SunnComm CEO Peter Jacobs ultimately stated that the company will not pursue legal action against the student, mainly because of the wishes of record label BMG Bertelsmann, whose CD was the object of Halderman’s research, thus avoiding some of the kind of negative publicity that sprung out of the Felten affair.

Halderman maintains that he intends to carry on with this kind of work.

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