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Microsoft e-book software cracked

A U.K. programmer releases software said to dismantle the anticopying technology in Microsoft Reader, setting the stage for another confrontation in the digital piracy wars.

A British programmer has released software online that is said to dismantle the anticopying technology in the Microsoft Reader e-book software, setting up another potential confrontation in the digital piracy wars.

Independent programmer Dan Jackson has posted the program and its source code on his Web site, saying that he's working with the software's original creator, who wishes to remain anonymous. Although rumors of software that strips Microsoft's copy protection away from its e-book files have circulated before, this appears to be the first time such a program has been made available to the public.

Jackson says he's responding to what he sees as serious flaws in the Reader software, and is not driven by any particular ideological motivation. He has an early-generation handheld computer that can't read modern Microsoft e-book files, and simply wanted a way to use the hardware he'd already purchased, he said in an interview conducted by instant messenger.

"I thought that I couldn't possibly be the only one wanting to be able to read e-books on (older) platforms," Jackson said. He also noted that text-to-speech applications would not work with the Reader software, and that putting the files in alternative formats could aid readers with disabilities.

A Microsoft spokesman said the company was aware of the software and had contacted publishers to notify them about it. The company said it did not yet have a fix that would block the software's use, but was looking at all its "short- and long-term options"--including legal action.

"We are investigating all the business, technical and legal ramifications," Microsoft spokesman Jon Murchinson said.

The release is the latest in a string of reports of supposedly secure file formats being cracked by outside programmers. Few experts believe that any digital rights management technology is wholly secure, and Microsoft employees have often conceded that dedicated crackers will likely break through any such technological protections, given enough time. Nevertheless, legal action has often followed such releases as companies try to minimize the effects of the cracked copy-protection.

Indeed, the release of Jackson's software raises shades of an earlier legal case, in which Russian researcher Dmitry Sklyarov was arrested by FBI agents after he worked on a piece of commercial software that broke similar copy restrictions for Adobe's e-book software.

In that case, the programmer's Russian employer, a company called ElcomSoft, was ultimately brought to criminal trial in the United States. A jury recently acquitted the company, deciding it had not intended to break U.S. law.

Jackson said he hadn't yet been contacted by Microsoft or any of the publishers.

The program itself, dubbed Convert Lit (Lit is the name of the file format produced by the Reader software), works in several stages. The first stage of the process must be performed on the same computer that holds the original, activated version of the e-book file.

After that stage, the transformed file can be moved to other computers. When the final conversion is done, all restrictions on copying and use can be stripped out of the file, allowing it to be copied or redistributed.

Microsoft's Reader is the centerpiece of the company's attempt to match Adobe's near-ubiquitous Acrobat software, which has evolved into a de facto standard for distributing documents online--and is increasingly being used to distribute books in electronic form. According to Microsoft, 13,000 book titles in its Reader format are commercially available, distributed by bookstores such as and Barnes & Noble.

Sales of e-books remain an infinitesimal portion of publishers' revenues, although technology companies, including Microsoft, hope that new tablet PCs and other portable devices will help jump-start the market during the next few years.