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The programmer’s software works by recovering a series of well-hidden encryption keys specific to each activated copy of Reader and to each owner-exclusive e-book. It essentially reverses the process publishers follow when they assemble source files such as text and images into an e-book. The software dumps unprotected copies of these files into a new folder on the user’s computer-as the programmer demonstrated to Technology Review using an owner-exclusive e-book purchased from an online bookstore.

Approached for comment, Jeff Ramos, director of worldwide marketing for Microsoft’s “eMerging Technologies” group, said, “We do not comment on alleged security violations of our software. In general, if necessary in response to such incidents, we take appropriate measures.”

So far, programmers intent on exposing e-book security weaknesses haven’t been deterred, even by the possibility of legal action. Indeed, the publicity surrounding the prosecution of Dmitry Sklyarov, a Russian cryptographer who wrote similar software that strips copy protection from Adobe e-book files, has only added to widespread criticism of digital rights management technologies and the laws designed to bolster them. FBI agents arrested Sklyarov at a July hacker convention in Las Vegas after a tip-off from Adobe that Sklyarov’s employer, ElcomSoft, had been selling the protection-removing software from its Web site. The arrest-the first criminal case brought under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act-spurred a boycott against Adobe products and protests against the company in more than 20 cities around the world. (Adobe quickly withdrew its support for the prosecution, and Sklyarov was released from custody in August. The U.S. Department of Justice continues to pursue the case.)

One issue in the Adobe debate is a conflict in the copyright act. An exemption to the legislation makes it legal to circumvent technological protections when an e-book is malfunctioning, damaged or obsolete. Civil-liberties groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation say such exemptions are necessary to protect traditional rights of “fair use” of copyrighted materials. But the act outlaws the manufacture, distribution or sale of software or devices that would allow consumers to exploit the exemption-a provision supported by publishers. “There is no device that can currently distinguish between a fair use and an illegal use of a copyrighted work,” explains Allan Adler, vice president for legal and government affairs at the Association of American Publishers.

But unless publishers give readers the leeway to use e-books the way they use print books, say critics, few will buy into the technology. EBookWeb’s Sperberg applauds Microsoft’s decision to raise the activation limit, and says getting rid of the “crazy catch-22” in the copyright law would be another good step. The fact that Microsoft has joined Adobe as a victim of e-book decryption efforts, he says, should make it clear that “digital rights management doesn’t make things harder for the professional pirate or the black-market publisher; it makes things harder for me, the reader.” Until software firms and publishers figure out how to protect e-books without treating all readers like thieves, the summer of beach-blanket e-books may never materialize. 

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