Threat of lawsuit passes for student
SunnComm Technologies, Inc. announced yesterday morning it would sue first-year graduate student John Halderman over his recent critique of the company's new CD copy-protection method, but by the end of the day SunnComm president and CEO Peter Jacobs said he changed his mind.
Jacobs said in an interview late last night that a successful lawsuit would do little to reverse the damage done by the paper Halderman published Monday about his research, and any suit would likely hurt the research community by making computer scientists think twice about researching copy-protection technology.
"I don't want to be the guy that creates any kind of chilling effect on research," Jacobs said.
SunnComm plans to make that announcement this morning.
Halderman's paper hit SunnComm hard. Since Monday its stock value has dropped $10 million — one-third of the company's total worth.
"I just thought about it and decided it was more important not to be one of those people. The harm's been done . . . if I can't accomplish anything [with a lawsuit] I don't want to leave a wake," he said.
In the increasingly bitter wars between those advocating stronger anti-piracy protections and those who favor less stringent copyright enforcement, the decision against legal action represents one of a precious few instances of companies looking past their bottom line.
"I think it's a sensible decision given the situation, given that what [Halderman] was doing was perfectly legitimate," said computer science professor Edward Felten. "[Jacobs is] to be commended for not wanting to interfere with research."
Felten and some of his colleagues had been in a similar situation in 2001 when the Recording Industry Association of America — the same group that sued Dan Peng '05 last semester for running a campus file-sharing website — strongly urged the research group not to publish their work on another copy-protection technology.
The RIAA said publishing the work would violate the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
SunnComm's press release threatened to use the same law against Halderman.
SunnComm had also initiatially decided to sue Halderman because the company thought he had unfairly critiqued their product after misunderstanding their intent in designing it. Throughout its development, the company's software, MediaMax, was designed to be a step toward curbing casual copying rather than a silver bullet, Jacobs said.
However, Halderman claimed the company's allegations of "incredible security" were overstated. As he pointed out, the system would not have worked on any computer where autorun — the feature in Microsoft Windows that automatically launches a program when a CD is inserted — was disabled.
When The Daily Princetonian informed Halderman that the suit was not going to proceed, he was relieved.
"I think that's a horrible precedent," he said. "A large amount of security research is critiques of existing security systems . . . The worst thing in the world is a false sense of security."
Last November Halderman said he was concerned about presenting his junior paper research to an audience of scientists for fear of being sued under the DMCA. He said at the time the existence of the DMCA forced him to carefully word his research so as to avoid a lawsuit.
Halderman plans to continue his research toward a doctorate and hopes to pursue a career in computer security afterwards.
Even before Halderman published his paper, SunnComm had planned to release a new version of its software that addresses many of the same concerns Halderman raised.
"I don't want to be the people my parents warned me to stay away from," said Jacobs of his decision. "It's 10 million bucks, but maybe I can make it back, and maybe [Halderman] can learn a little bit more about our technology so as not to call it brain dead."
Reader Comments (0)
No comments yet. Be the first to post your opinion on this article.