By John Borland
Special to CNET News.com
September 26, 2006
Microsoft has filed a federal lawsuit against an alleged hacker who
broke through its copy protection technology, charging that the mystery
developer somehow gained access to its copyrighted source code.
For more than a month, the Redmond, Wash., company has been combating a
program released online called FairUse4WM, which successfully stripped
anticopying guards from songs downloaded through subscription media
services such as Napster or Yahoo Music.
Microsoft has released two successive patches aimed at disabling the
tool. The first worked--but the hacker, known only by the pseudonym
"Viodentia," quickly found a way around the update, the company alleges.
Now the company says this was because the hacker had apparently gained
access to copyrighted source code unavailable to previous generations of
"Our own intellectual property was stolen from us and used to create
this tool," said Bonnie MacNaughton, a senior attorney in Microsoft's
legal and corporate affairs division. "They obviously had a leg up on
any of the other hackers that might be creating circumvention tools from
This latest round of copy-protection headaches comes at a delicate time
for Microsoft. In a few months, the company plans to launch its own
digital music subscription service, called "Zune," paired with an iPod
device rival of the same name. The package will compete with services
from Microsoft's traditional partners, such as Napster and Yahoo.
The Zune service and device will use their own flavor of digital rights
management, and this will not be directly compatible with Microsoft's
partners' products, despite being based on the same Windows Media
technology. The company is taking great pains to assure its partners
that their PlaysForSure-branded products are still state of the art.
At the moment, Microsoft is taking a two-pronged technical and legal
approach to FairUse4WM that goes beyond the scope of its earlier DRM
On the technical side, it is pursuing much the same strategy as in the
past: studying the hacker's tool and trying to update its Windows Media
technology to block it.
Indeed, the company's Windows Media copy protection technology was
designed from the start to support swift updates that would address
inevitable cracks. That has long been part of the technology's draw for
record labels and movie studios, which are fearful that content
protection flaws will lead to films and music being swapped freely
Microsoft's copy protection has been cracked before and then quickly
fixed. Company representatives said that the FairUse4WM tool, despite
its developer's success in breaking through the company's first patch,
is simply triggering the same kind of security review that has happened
in the past.
"This particular circumvention doesn't change that reality at all, or
affect the underpinnings of the system," said Marcus Matthias, a senior
product manager at Microsoft. "This is not quite as 'cat and mouse' as
some people might have you believe."
The crack's unusual longevity has caused ripples of worry inside the
digital media community, however. One service provider, the British
network BSkyB, even temporarily canceled movie downloads.
Representatives from other services say Microsoft's previous
rights-management security updates have been successful and expect this
effort ultimately to be no different.
"One of the great features of the Windows Media DRM is its
renewability," said Bill Pence, chief technical officer at Napster.
"When the DRM system is compromised, we can incorporate updates with
minimal impact on users, and we expect to do the same with the current
Using courts to track a cracker
However, the federal "John Doe" lawsuit, along with "dozens" of legal
letters sent to Internet sites that are hosting the allegedly
copyright-infringing tool, is a decidedly different tack for Microsoft.
The copyright lawsuit was filed in Seattle federal court last Friday,
without a name attached. Just as in the recording industry's many
lawsuits against accused file swappers, it targets an unknown individual
or individuals, whose true identity will be sought in the course of the
For now, that means going to the Internet service providers for Web
sites where the original FairUse4WM tool was released, in hopes of
tracking down an IP address or other digital traces that might lead to
the developer, MacNaughton said.
Microsoft is also contacting other Web sites that have posted the
FairUse4WM tool, asking them to remove the software, on the grounds that
it contains copyrighted company code.
Company representatives declined to speculate on exactly how "Viodentia"
gained access to copyrighted source code. The code in question is part
of a Windows Media software development kit, but is not easily
accessible to anyone with a copy of that toolkit, Microsoft said.
So far, little is known about the developer, who has used the pseudonym
"Viodentia" in several online postings at a site called Doom9.org.
"Viodentia" could not immediately be reached for comment.
After spending an unaccustomed month of grappling with the problem,
Microsoft representatives stopped short of promising their latest
Windows Media update will be impregnable--although certainly, the hope
is that a third patch won't be needed.
"Any time we put out an update, it is our hope that it will be as
efficacious as possible," Matthias said. "It is our hope that the
technical mitigations that we've put in place will do something to
impede this circumvention."
Analysts say that "Viodentia" hasn't proved that Microsoft's DRM tools
are fundamentally flawed, but has shown that the business of keeping it,
or any rights management system, secure is increasingly becoming a
"Any DRM out there is going to be cracked," GartnerG2 analyst Michael
McGuire said. "More important is how the technology service reacts.
Someone has to be keeping an eye online all the time now, looking for
the next time."
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