Nikon's photo encryption reported broken

Proprietary encryption format used in some high-end cameras appears to be toast, clearing the way for third-party image software.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
3 min read
A Massachusetts programmer says he has broken a proprietary encryption code that has effectively forced some Nikon digital camera owners to use the company's own software.

Because Nikon scrambled a portion of the file, legal worries have kept third-party developers like Adobe Systems from supporting Nikon's uncompressed "raw" photos in their software. Nikon sells its Nikon Capture utility for $100.

"It's an open format now," said programmer Dave Coffin, who posted the decryption code on his Web site this week. "I broke that encryption--I reverse-engineered it."

Dave Coffin
Code breaker and author of "dcraw"

Coffin gained some fame in digital photography circles as the author of the popular Dcraw utility, which translates raw images from cameras, including ones made by Nikon, Canon and Kodak, into a nonproprietary format. Raw images are prized by serious photographers because, unlike JPEG files, there's no loss in quality.

Nikon's encryption, found in the high-end D2X and D2H cameras, drew attention last weekend thanks to a post on an Adobe forum by Photoshop creator Thomas Knoll. He warned that Adobe could not fully support the Nikon files in its Camera Raw software--by decrypting the encoded white balance information--for fear of violating the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

"Nikon might consider breaking the white balance encryption a violation of DMCA, and sue Adobe," Knoll wrote. "Adobe is a large company with deep pockets...and it is unlikely we would run the legal risk of breaking the white balance encryption unless we can get some assurance from Nikon that they will not sue Adobe for doing so."

Coffin said that the publication of his discovery may let Adobe include support for Nikon's file format in the next version of Camera Raw without violating the DMCA. "Adobe has a very cautious legal team," he said. "In fact, all of their engineers are forbidden from doing any decompilation whatsoever."

Neither Nikon nor Adobe responded to repeated requests for comment.

Nikon's white-balance encryption had hindered photographers who preferred other, sometimes faster or more capable, image conversion software by making it infeasible to convert large numbers of images. Canon--which bundles its raw conversion software with its cameras and does not charge extra--does not encrypt its photo metadata.

With some exceptions, the DMCA broadly restricts software that can "circumvent" access to technological protection schemes.

Peter Jaszi, a professor at American University who teaches copyright law, said that while Adobe might have some good arguments, it's reasonable for the company to be cautious. "I wouldn't, in Adobe's position, be thrilled to draw a lawsuit if I could avoid it," Jaszi said. "Adobe knows all about suing people under the DMCA and how much heartache that can generate."

Adobe famously embraced the controversial copyright law four years ago when seeking the arrest of a Russian programmer who broke the encryption code protecting the company's e-books--and then changed its mind a few days later. A California jury acquitted the programmer's employer, ElcomSoft, in December 2002.

In an e-mail message late Thursday, Bibble Labs founder Eric Hyman said he had also broken the Nikon white balance code and had incorporated it in the latest version of his commercial image-manipulation software. Bibble Labs sells the full-featured version of its "Bibble 4" software for $129, and a less-capable version for $69.