Nikon RAW Metadata Encrypted, Broken

Word has gotten around that Nikon is encrypting the white balance metadata in the RAW (NEF format) files recorded by its high-end D2X and D2Hs digital cameras. News of this first started to spread when Thomas Knoll (of Photoshop creation fame) posted a note to one of Adobe’s User To User forums. In it he writes:

… Nikon made a significant change with the Nikon D2X and D2Hs cameras. They decided to ENCRYPT the white balance data inside the NEF file for these cameras. Previously, the white balance data was stored in non-encrypted format, and was readable to third party raw converters using simple reverse engineering of the file format.

Adobe has decided to avoid entangling themselves in any DMCA legal quagmires by not attempting to reverse engineer this encryption (though others haven’t been nearly as bashful).

As Knoll goes on to point out, Nikon could potentially invoke the DMCA to claim ownership of the metadata “inside the NEF”. As the very happy owner of a Nikon D100 and a digital photography enthusiast, this just sticks in my craw all wrong. Even if an interpretation of the DMCA of this stripe stood, I would staunchly hold that it is ethically indefensible.

What needs to be drawn here is an explicit line between the photographers unique creation and the secret sauce used by the tool they created it with. One clearly belongs to the photographer, the other may not (at least as far as the DMCA is concerned). Where does one stop and the other begin? Is the creation simply the raw pixel values? Or does that extend to the settings of the camera when that information was recorded? One could almost see Nikon mounting a convincing case to the contrary. In many uses these settings are determined by the camera itself. Nikon’s proprietary algorithms govern your camera’s settings when you turn the mode dial to “aperture priority”, “shutter priority”, and so on.

However, any claims Nikon might lay to those settings are bounced out the window when a user flips that same dial into manual mode. If I manually set the white balance on my camera to 7000 (easily accomplished with any of the cameras in question), clearly that setting is mine and not Nikon’s. They took no part in determining that value, and therefore I see no way that they can assert ownership over it.

Knoll does note that this encryption will not stop Adobe from including support for these files in its own products. How so? The white balance information will be ignored, leaving the user to manually adjust it or use a default value.

My hope is that Nikon will issue an informative response soon. Since they’ve set themselves up in a position to potentially assert ownership over a not insubstantial part of their users’ creations, the least they should do is clearly outline their intent. I wouldn’t hold my breath though, as I strongly suspect this springs from an intent to reinforce proprietary RAW lock-in, which has shown serious signs of eroding recently (think Adobe’s DNG format). Want to work with your Nikon RAW files? Keep buying Nikon software! And that’s an awfully hard line to hand your customers.

Update:

Nikon has issued an official response. Unfortunately it’s packaged in such byzantine grammar that it leaves a lot more questions than answers. Time to break out those copies of Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Hopefully, more lucid information is forthcoming.