September 8, 2000 5:55 PM PDT

SDMI offers $10,000 challenge to hackers

The record industry and companies hoping to create bulletproof digital music protections are challenging all comers to a duel by hacking: Break their safeguards, and they'll pay $10,000.

The challenge is the first time the developers of the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) technology have opened themselves so broadly to a trial by fire. The goal for any ambitious hacker will be to strip out the identifying "watermark" from songs, which is the piece of code intended to keep a pirated song from playing on an SDMI-complaint device.

Nearly a dozen different proposals for the security component of the copy protection will be up for grabs, according to SDMI executive director Leonardo Chiariglione. Any of the versions that are cracked will be thrown out of contention for the final standard, while the others will go on for other tests.

"Here's the invitation: Attack the proposed technologies. Crack them," Chiariglione wrote in an open letter to the digital music community. "By successfully breaking the SDMI-protected content, you will play a role in determining what technology SDMI will adopt."

The SDMI effort was launched at the end of 1998 as a way for the music, consumer electronics and software industries to settle collectively on a way to protect digital music from piracy. The idea has been to create a voluntary standard under which music companies could insert an inaudible bit of information into every song that would block it from being played on devices manufactured to comply with that standard.

The effort has proved rocky, as analysts and some companies in the industry have questioned whether consumers would accept the standards and whether manufacturers would be willing to create devices unable to play the millions of songs downloaded illegally online.

The initiative is in its second phase as it develops the mark that will tell the devices whether the song has been illegally copied. This is the technology that will be opened to attack online.

Chiariglione said the contest will kick off Sept. 15 and go at least through Oct. 7.


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