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Open-source guru backs off tech demo

Bruce Perens, co-founder of the Open Source Initiative, says he will not publicize details about how to circumvent the controls on a DVD player.

Like other researchers who've backed down for fears of Hollywood reprisals, open-source guru Bruce Perens said he would not include details about how to circumvent DVD player controls in a presentation on Friday.

Perens is still scheduled to speak on the topic of digital rights management and open source activities at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention 2002 in San Diego. But under pressure from his employer, Hewlett-Packard, which worried that he would run afoul of digital copyright laws, he will not give a demonstration.

As part of his speech, Perens had planned to show the audience how to modify a DVD player to play time-zone-restricted European DVDs that are designed to not work in U.S. players. However, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) prohibits making available information on how to circumvent copyright controls.

Perens' speech will be preceded by one from Martin Fink, his manager at HP, who will explain why the company was uncomfortable with what Perens had originally planned.

Perens said he had no intention of violating copyrights--rather, he just wanted to view "AI," "Gladiator" and other DVDs he had bought while in Europe.

"All I want to do is play my discs," said Perens, who perhaps ironically has been given credit for technical help with the films "A Bug's Life" and "Toy Story II." "I don't want to copy it. I don't even want to give it to someone else to play."

In a sense, Perens set himself up for the brouhaha, bragging earlier this week to reporters that he planned to give a speech that could possibly violate the DMCA. When HP caught wind of the controversy, the company asked him to back away from the speech but said it would explain its decision to the masses.

HP did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

Perens joins a growing list of technologists who have been caught in the crosshairs of the new copyright laws, which were pushed by studios, labels and other copyright owners that feared new technology would cause them to lose control of their products and lead to rampant piracy.

Last summer, Russian programmer Dmitry Sklyarov was arrested after giving a speech on how to crack Adobe Systems' e-books. He spent several weeks in jail before prosecutors dropped charges; however, his employer, ElcomSoft, still faces trial in the first major test of the criminal provisions of the DMCA.

Also last year, Princeton professor Ed Felten backed down from giving a speech on weaknesses in watermarking technology after receiving threatening letters from the entertainment industry. Felten later filed suit seeking permission to give the speech, but a judge tossed it out in part because the entertainment industry said it didn't intend to sue him over the matter.

Perens said he has no plans to file a similar suit at this time and said he's only hoping to show that such crackdowns on free speech endanger scientific research.

"This might seem like an extremely nerdy issue, but there are fundamental things about your freedom of speech at risk here," he said shortly before giving his speech. "If you successfully restrain scientists from delivering information about copy control systems, how are you going to restrain them next?"