Assistant Professor Matthew Green has asked US courts for protection so that he can write a textbook explaining cryptography without getting sued under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
Green, who teaches at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, is penning a tome called Practical Cryptographic Engineering that examines the cryptographic mechanisms behind the devices we use every day, such as ATM machines, smart cars, and medical devices. But this could lead to a jail sentence if the manufacturers file a court case using Section 1201 of the DMCA.
Section 1201 prohibits the circumvention of copyright protection systems installed by manufacturers, and comes with penalties including heavy fines and possible jail time. As such, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has taken up Green’s case, and that of another researcher, to try to get the provision ruled illegal by the courts.
“If we want our communications and devices to be secure, we need to protect independent security researchers like Dr Green,” said EFF staff attorney Kit Walsh.
“Researchers should be encouraged to educate the public and the next generation of computer scientists. Instead, they are threatened by an unconstitutional law that has come unmoored from its original purpose of addressing copyright infringement. We’re going to court to protect everyone whose speech is squelched by this law, starting with Dr Green and his book.”
The US Department of Justice has asked the courts to dismiss the case on the grounds that it is highly unlikely that Green would be prosecuted. They are possibly right, but that’s not the point of this lawsuit – the real goal is the destruction of the DMCA.
As Cory Doctorow explained at last year’s DEF CON, supporters of the DMCA are smart about what cases they choose to prosecute. The first test case was brought against 2600, The Hacker Quarterly, after it published the DeCSS code.
DeCSS allowed anyone to circumvent the copy protection systems built into commercial DVDs. Doctorow opined that the case went ahead because the entertainment companies knew it would be a slam dunk – the magazine had limited funds and the court would be protested by ugly-looking hackers.
By contrast, the Recording Industry Association of America backed down in its lawsuit against Princeton professor Edward Felten over his cracking of the Secure Digital Music Initiative, a watermarking system for CDs. Felten was due to present a paper on the technology and was promptly sued, but the RIAA dropped its case, in part due to worries that a jury wouldn’t stomach censoring an academic.
So the EFF has decided to support two actions against the DMCA: Green and the case of researcher Andrew Huang, who wants to make an open-source computer that would allow commercial videos to be edited. EFF is hoping that these test cases can bring down Section 1201, and hopefully the entire DMCA. ®