Professor foils software pirates by obfuscation

Worries over the intellectual ownership of software may soon be eased by the development of anti-piracy software “watermarking” technology at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

Funded by the New Zealand government, and in collaboration with research at the University of Arizona funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, Professor Clark Thomborson’s team has developed a prototype method that places marks within the structure of software that dissuade the process of reverse engineering by software pirates. Professor Thomborson anticipates the imminent granting of a U.S. patent for the method, following his recent patenting of a software obfuscation method, which has since been sold on.

Traditional software protection methods place static, identifiable code within a program’s source code. However, these marks can be edited out or scrambled by software pirates. “What we are trying to do is insert marks that will survive a concerted attempt to get them out,” says Thomborson.

“In our case we put the watermark in the shape of the data structure you build, so in order to re-engineer the mark out you have to re-engineer the entire data structure, and that’s one of the last things you want to fuss around with,” he said.

Pirates attempting to change the data structure therefore risk breaking the very code they are trying to copy. Though it is still in the research stage, and there is no business model as yet, Professor Thomborson says he is seeking business development partners for the method through the University of Auckland’s Uniservices marketing wing.

He says he has been approached by record industry mainstay EMI Group PLC – no doubt looking for a way of securing downloadable audio files – but Professor Thomborson believes the strength and uniqueness of his method lies in the specific realm of software, rather than media.

“We’re just waiting for the right entrepreneur to pick it up and run with it, he says.”