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Activist defends DVD hack


November 8, 1999
Web posted at: 8:43 a.m. EST (1343 GMT)

by Ann Harrison

(IDG) -- The co-founder of the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation said Thursday that what was learned in the reverse engineering and cracking of a DVD copy-protection scheme will be used to make future intellectual-property protection methods stronger.

"The software that resulted is fully appropriate," said John Gilmore of the online civil rights organization. "It is in fact the Linux open-source software for playing movies on your computer screen." Gilmore is well-known within the security community for building the DES cracker machine that broke the 56-bit Data Encryption Standard algorithm once in common use by the government and others.

Gilmore noted that until now, movies on DVD couldn't be played on Linux because the DVD Forum wouldn't release specifications for how to do it. He said that now, or in the near future, Linux users will be able to play DVDs, which he believes is entirely appropriate.

Licenses of DVD technology are required to scramble the software into DVD decoders to make the code as difficult to read as possible and hard to reverse engineer. A Norwegian group called MoRE (Masters of Reverse Engineering) reportedly reverse engineered the playback software of the XingDVD Player manufactured by Xing Technologies of San Luis Obispo, Calif. The company, which is a subsidiary of RealNetworks Inc. of Seattle, didn't respond to requests for comment.

"This is a troubling situation," said Rick Clancy, a spokesman at Sony Corporation of America in Park Ridge, N.J., which sells both DVD players and content. He said that Sony is still gathering information on the purported hack and added that, "Sony is, of course, a strong advocate of content protection. Beyond that, at this point, we don't have enough information."

The DVD Forum, which is based in Japan, issued a statement condemning the reverse engineering, which it characterized as "illegal and inappropriate."

Gilmore, though, pointed out that where the reverse engineering was done, in Norway, the act was legal. Xing Technologies, which is only one of many DVD player manufacturers, may have failed to adequately obscure the playback code.

Gilmore added that the reverse engineering was one of the steps used in cracking the weak algorithms used to prevent the copying of DVDs. The DVD standard was designed so that if one player key was cracked, that player wouldn't be able to play new versions of DVDs. The defeat of the algorithms, which were weak because they were designed to meet U.S. and Japanese export controls, makes it possible to build an open-source DVD player that the DVD Forum can't disable, he said.

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Electronic Frontier Foundation
DVD Forum
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