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Computer security researchers would be allowed to hack through copy protection schemes in order to look for security holes in the software being protected, under a proposed exception to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) being debated in official hearings this week.

Enacted as an anti-piracy measure in 1998, after fierce lobbying from the motion picture and recording industries, the DMCA's anti-circumvention provision generally makes it unlawful for anyone to "circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access" to DVD movies, digital music, electronic books, computer programs, or any other copyrighted work. To do so for commercial advantage or personal profit is a felony carrying up to five years in prison.

But Congress built a safety-valve of sorts into the law, giving the U.S. Copyright Office - part of the Library of Congress - the power to create exceptions to the DMCA to protect legitimate, non-infringing uses of copyrighted material. In October, 2000, when the law took full force, the office carved out two narrow exemptions: one allowing researchers to crack so-called "censorware" applications to learn what websites they block, and a second exemption for old computer programs and databases rendered unusable by a defective or obsolete access control mechanism.

To that list, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) would like to add an exemption permitting white hat hackers to crack copy protection schemes "that fail to permit access to recognize shortcomings in security systems, to defend patents and copyrights, to discover and fix dangerous bugs in code, or to conduct forms of desired educational activities."

"I'm going to argue that the [current] exemptions aren't sufficient, because we're having security people threatened," says ACM's Barbara Simons.

In 2000, a recording industry standards group used the threat of a DMCA lawsuit to block Princeton University professor Ed Felten from publishing a paper on weaknesses in a digital audio watermarking scheme. The group quickly retracted that threat, and similar cases are rare, but Simons says the DMCA still casts a shadow over the academic security community in a more subtle form, discernable in outline. "It's much harder to document what doesn't get written, what doesn't get published," says Simons. "But it's had a very chilling effect,".

The current exemptions expire in October of this year, unless the Copyright Office chooses to reestablish them. The office took testimony on that question, and on proposals for additional exemptions, earlier this month in Washington D.C., and will hold a final round of public hearings in Los Angeles on Wednesday and Thursday of this week.

Simons, who's testifying Wednesday, indicated she'll argue the computer security exemption as a homeland security issue: independent software security research is more important than ever, she says. "The bad guys aren't going to publish the results, they're just going to exploit them... We should be eliminating the laws that encourage insecurity."

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