The paper, which discusses weaknesses in some watermarking technology that record companies were considering as protection for their music, was quashed in April after the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) and the Recording Industry Association of America discouraged Princeton professor Edward Felten from presenting his findings, saying he risked breaking copyright laws.
In the suit filed Wednesday in federal court in New Jersey, the EFF argued that the researchers from Princeton and Rice universities have a First Amendment right to publish their paper. The advocacy group filed the suit against the RIAA, the SDMI, technology company Verance and the Justice Department.
The suit asks the court to allow Felten's presentation of the paper at a conference in August and to overturn parts of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Portions of the act restrict people from sharing information about devices that could be used to circumvent copyrights. However, some exemptions exist for academic research.
Felten originally pulled the research from another conference, saying he didn't want to face legal threats. But the professor said he changed his mind after considering the ramifications of such crackdowns on scientific research.
"We didn't want to be in a situation that we have to go through this every time we want to present a paper some company doesn't like," Felten said. "We didn't want our colleagues to have to do that either."
The suit stems from a contest sponsored last fall by the SDMI, an entertainment industry group researching music-protection technology. The contest encouraged the Internet community to try to break some digital watermark protections proposed to control consumer access to digital music. Such watermarks place a unique bit of code into a file that is theoretically difficult to remove without damaging the quality of the sound or image.
Once the researchers discovered ways to crack the code, however, an officer of the RIAA and the SDMI sent a letter to Felten, saying publication of the material would violate the DMCA. Felten pulled the paper from the 4th International Information Hiding Workshop in April, even though he felt the research could benefit the music industry.
"We think the public and musicians and songwriters...have a right to know they're being asked to buy into a technology that doesn't work," he said.
The suit also is believed to be the first to challenge the criminal provisions of the DMCA, which could punish companies that help people circumvent copyrights. In addition to Felten, USENIX , which is sponsoring the August conference, is also a plaintiff in the suit. "We feel threatened under the DMCA," said Avi Rubin, a USENIX board member, explaining his group's decision to join the suit.
The RIAA issued a statement calling Felten's suit "inexplicable."
"We have unequivocally and repeatedly stated that we have no intention of bringing a lawsuit against Professor Felten or his colleagues," the statement said. "It seems that the professor, or the Electronic Frontier Foundation, would have preferred that we sue in order to keep their publicity machine running."
But Felten said the groups only backed away from their threat after it worked. In April, the groups sent Felten a letter saying publication could run afoul of federal copyright laws.
The SDMI did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.
EFF attorney Cindy Cohn said that even if the entertainment industry agrees not to threaten Felten if he presents the paper in August, the EFF will still pursue its lawsuit.
"They need to pledge not to interfere with this paper and future papers as well," Cohn said. "They need to pledge to stop interfering with the scientific process."
The entertainment industry has been aggressive in wielding the DMCA to crack down on threats to its control of digital content. Last year, the Motion Picture Association of America sued online hacker publication 2600 magazine, charging that posting and linking to code that could be used to crack DVDs violated copyright law. A judge agreed, but the case is on appeal. The EFF is also representing 2600, and Felten testified as an expert witness on behalf of the magazine.
Cohn is hoping Felten and his colleagues will be more sympathetic clients than 2600, which the movie industry painted as a magazine designed to teach people how to perform a host of illegal digital acts.
"I think it would be very difficult to cast those aspersions on Princeton and Rice researchers," Cohn said.