Hacker Defeats MS Digital Rights Management Scheme

By R Menta- 10/19/01

He goes by the name of 'Beale Screamer' and today the anonymous hacker has announced he has broken the Version-2 Microsoft digital rights management (DRM) scheme. But, claims are nothing without something to back it up, so Beale Screamer also posted the software to strip the security from WMA files.

Named FreeMe, the program is a command-line utility that has been tested only under Windows 98 so far by its creator and may not function correctly under other operating systems. Despite the limitations the program has at this early stage, the evidence is clear that Microsoft will be going back to the drawing board.

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Going into significant description on the program in the "technical details" Beale Screamer goes over the Microsoft source code step-by-step, exposing its weaknesses. The online community now has the blueprint and certainly others will take up Beale Screamer's offer to help make improvements on FreeMe.

Citing the abuse of monopoly power and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) as his reason for developing the hack - we will just assume that the challenge and the ability to listen to music unsecured are also reasons - Beale Screamer posted this note to the Justice Department:

Justice Department: Maybe this should really be addressed to the state officials, since it looks like the current U.S. administration doesn't care too much about monopoly powers being abused. But for whoever is interested, there is a very serious anti-competitive measure in this software [DRM]. In particular, for various modules of the software to be used, you must supply a certified public key for communication. Guess who controls the certification of public keys? Microsoft. So if someone wants to make a competing product, which integrates well with the Windows OS, you will need to get Microsoft's permission and obtain a certificate from them. I don't know what their policy is on this, so don't know if this power will be abused or not. However, it has the potential for being a weapon Microsoft can use to knock out any competition to their products.

Beale Screamer goes into even more detail on his essay "Mad as Hell about the DMCA" which he includes with the FreeMe download on a file called "Philosophy". There under the heading How Things Should Be Beale Screamer writes:

Any Digital Rights Management (DRM) scheme has two sides: on the one hand, the most obvious use is to take away the rights of the consumer. On the other hand, it can in fact be used to give the consumer *more* possibilities than existed before. I think the idea of limited time, full-length previews, or time-limited Internet-based rentals is excellent. If DRM was *only* used for this, in order to give us more options than we previously had, I would not have taken the effort to break the scheme. What is bad is the use of DRM to restrict the traditional form of music sale. When I buy a piece of music (not rent it, and not preview it), I expect (and demand!) my traditional fair use rights to the material. I should be able to take that content, copy it onto all my computers at home, my laptop, my portable MP3 player...

Beale Screamer also includes a license - yes a license - for the hack to further enforces his intent that the software is created specifically to protect fair use. "I hope people take my civil disobedience as an opportunity to send a message to publishers", Beale Screamer tells us.

Several FreeMe mirror sites have been set up already as others who oppose the DMCA champion both Beale Screamer's cause and action.

Thomas C Greene of The Register who broke this story calls Beale Screamer a crusader (though he also suspects it is the work of more than one individual). The record industry will paint him as nothing more than a pure hacker (and that may be true), but few pure hackers would go through the detail of laying out the arguments he does throughout his read me and licensing files as well as his thoughtful essay. It also is a good time to point out that the RIAA itself is considering fighting hacking with hacking, making them no better under their own definition.

We feel Beale Screamer is one of a number of pissed off consumers with the skills to do something about it and the acumen to know there are other pissed off consumers out there who will take a program like FreeMe and run with it. Does it matter that he is hacking for good instead of evil? That all depends on how you define good.

Beale Screamer calls it civil disobedience. Of course, if he is an American citizen his actions constitute a felony under the very DCMA he despises. His writings show he is fully aware of the penalties for his actions and is more than willing to keep his anonymity preserved.

"I don't intend on being a martyr" writes Beale Screamer.


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