Scientists like to probe the unknown and pioneer useful technologies. But in the spring of 2001, Edward W. Felten discovered that such efforts aren’t always welcome. A computer scientist at Princeton University, Felten took part in a contest sponsored by the Recording Industry Association of America to test technology for guarding music against piracy. He and his students quickly found flaws in the new antipiracy software and prepared to publish their results. But when the RIAA learned of the plan, it threatened to sue under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Congress passed it back in 1998 to block hackers from breaking copy protection. And they wisely included a provision designed to let researchers such as Felten carry out their important work. Still, the RIAA deemed Felten’s line of study too sensitive.
Ultimately, faced with Felten’s countersuit, the RIAA backed off. But by that time news of the confrontation had rocked the tech community. The lesson many scientists drew was that copyright protection takes priority over research. “The legal tools that are being used to rein in bad behavior are so blunt that they block a lot of perfectly benign behavior,” Felten says. “That worries me.”
It’s a concern that reverberates broadly in tech circles at a time when Congress is considering tough new antipiracy legislation. Most people agree that the music and film industries have the right to defend themselves against illegal copying. But society needs to consider the potential impact on innovation. Many high-tech business leaders fear that new laws could hobble researchers who are trying to come up with inventions such as next-generation TV systems or even the electronic components for those inventions.