October 18, 2003

Alex Halderman MediaMax CD3 paper legal threats, personal wrap-up

I've been writing much about the case where the SunnComm company threatened to sue Princeton graduate student Alex Halderman for his CD copy-protection research paper Analysis of the MediaMax CD3 Copy-Prevention System.

To conclude the series, I want to focus on a certain unintended consequence I know it'll have for me. In a paradoxical outcome, I suspect I'll get more grief, rather than less, for my own legal risks which drove me to finally quit my censorware research. That is, I can hear it already, people are not going to uniformly react along the lines of "Aha, now I see why such work is so stressful and dangerous, because of the legal threats involved". Rather I'm going to get too many reactions of "Look, the company made a lot of noise, but everyone rushed to Alex Halderman's defense, and he ended up a BIG HERO - so if you get threatened, you'll get that support too.". Unfortunately, this analysis, while superficially appealing (it means the person can feel good about berating me for being a coward, rather than feeling guilty they won't risk anything themselves to help me), isn't convincing.

Ernest Miller commented, in a Lawmeme article about the case:

I can't help but think that the immediate blogging firestorm and public outcry that occurred in response to the proposed lawsuit had something to do with the quick retraction of the threat.

I agree. As just discussed, the company was treated from the start as an "Internet laughingstock", and received intense ridicule. They were on the defensive, they were the ones who had to react to a storyline which painted them as idiots and charlatans (as opposed to the storyline they wanted, about "piracy and theft"). And I concur it made a huge difference in how much they wanted to pursue legal action.

When I talk about support, and how the lack of it has affected my own censorware work, people sometimes don't understand. One prominent activist has, privately, repeatedly flamed me for alleged vagueness in the term. But this incident is a perfect case study. The press reaction, the public outcry, in that crucial initial period, was all overwhelmingly favorable to Alex Halderman's work and plight.

However, that wasn't an accident, in my view, but flowed from the way events unfolded. Critically, researcher Halderman actually got the "first shot". That is, his work was covered favorably and extensively in its initial release. So the press already had a framework which put him in a strong position. And in contrast, this is why I keep saying it's such a problem that my own censorware research work will likely get marginal coverage, or even a hatchet-job or Slashdot-supported smear.

Imagine how differently events might have unfolded if the reporting was overwhelmingly echoing SunnComm's press release instead of laughing at it.

P.S.: As I was writing this, I happened to see Donna Wentworth's excellent DMCA v. Academic Research posting, concluding:

Eeyore has been saying this for a while now, but it bears repeating: if the Internet has opened up a new avenue for "amateur" investigation, the DMCA is closing it.

If even "legitimate" research is hampered by the DMCA, what about other kinds of research? What happens to the researcher who makes significant contributions to encryption or censorware research--but not within the traditional academic setting?

What would have happened to Alex Halderman, if he weren't a doctoral student at Princeton--and under the tutelage of Professor Edward Felten -- but, instead, next year's fifteen year-old genius, who happens to be schooled at home, with not a single lawyer-friend in sight?

[Note, that last isn't me, I'm Eeyore, and a thirty-eight year-old genius, with a lawyer-friend or two - but also more than one lawyer-enemy, and those matter too!]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in activism , dmca , legal | on October 18, 2003 11:59 PM (Infothought permalink) | Followups
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