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Of Shift Keys and Quixotic Dreams

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Very compelling telling of the Alex Halderman-“shift key”-copy protection-SunnComm tale of madness and hilarity in USA Today:

    About every 30 seconds, the phone rings in the Phoenix offices of SunnComm Technologies. When the receptionist at the 28-employee company answers, someone on the other end curses into the phone.

    That’s happening because SunnComm CEO Peter Jacobs, 55, has been labeled the newest villain in the superheated battle over free copying of music files. Jacobs has faced this since tousle-haired 22-year-old Princeton University student Alex Halderman became the file-sharing crowd’s latest hero.

    Halderman researched SunnComm’s software, which is meant to control the copying of music CDs, and concluded that the software could be defeated simply by holding down the shift key while loading a CD in a computer. On Oct. 6, Halderman posted his findings on his Web site, and word spread.

    Halderman and Jacobs were flung into the kind of instant global fame only the Internet can fuel.

    ….SunnComm is the leader in CD copy-protection technology, analysts say. That is practically a miracle, considering the penny-stock company was in the business of Elvis impersonators until 2000, when its founding CEO got run out of office by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

    SunnComm used to be Desert Winds Entertainment. Mostly, it created so-called tribute acts, finding people who could pretend to be Elvis Presley or Madonna and booking them at clubs and casinos. The SEC said the company’s two top officers, Michael Paloma and Matthew Bardasian, were illegally selling shares after a false news release pushed up the stock price. Both were fined and banned by the SEC from running public companies.

    ….Halderman had grown up using his PC as his CD player. He was also first in his Philadelphia high school class of 950 and scored a 1580 on the SATs, a mere 20 points shy of perfect. He entered Princeton in 1999 and majored in computer science just as the dot-com boom crumbled. He landed in the orbit of Ed Felten, a professor of computer security who was tangling with the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) for exposing flaws in copy protection.

    He’d heard of copy-protected CDs that wouldn’t play at all in computers — i.e., SunnComm’s first-generation technology — and ”thought it was interesting. I wanted to see how it worked.”

    ….Halderman read news stories about the Hamilton CD. The stories said SunnComm’s technology allowed a limited number of copies but squelched copying after that. ”I couldn’t figure out how they could do that, just musing about it in my head,” Halderman says. So he ordered the CD to research it.

    ….On Oct. 6, Halderman posted his work on his Web site. Felten pointed to it from his site, noting, ”This technology is going to end up in the Hall of Fame beside the previous Sony technology” that could be defeated with a pen.

    In the paper, Halderman claimed that SunnComm’s system is ”irreparably flawed.” He added, ”I believe anti-copy CD technologies will prove unfruitful and will therefore eventually be abandoned by record companies.”

    ….Jacobs thought that might violate the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a controversial law that makes it a crime to aid copyright violation — perhaps by posting instructions on the Net. Jacobs invoked the DMCA, telling the news media he would sue Halderman and also have the student arrested.

    That’s when the world seemed to turn on Jacobs. Anonymous callers began abusing SunnComm receptionists. Employees found their photos doctored and posted on Web sites. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a lobbying group, jumped in, saying, ”It’s hard to imagine any better example of how the DMCA has been misused.”

    ….”I’m trying to figure out how I found myself on this side of the debate,” Jacobs says. ”I know we’re not doing God’s work, but I think we’re performing an important service.”

    SunnComm has a new version of its technology ready. BMG plans to use it. The other major record labels are interested.

    This story hasn’t ended yet.

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