Nikon encrypts RAW file data|
(Wednesday, April 20, 2005 - 02:16 EDT)
A news item posted on Sunday by PhotoshopNews.com reports on comments from Thomas Knoll, one of the original authors of Adobe Photoshop, relating to the RAW file format used in Nikon's D2X and D2Hs digital SLRs.
Thomas Knoll is currently the chief engineer for Adobe Camera Raw, the company's RAW file conversion software. The PhotoshopNews item references a forum thread started by Mr. Knoll in Adobe's official user forums, where he reveals that .NEF RAW files from the latest Nikon digital SLRs encrypt data relating to the white balance setting the photo was shot with.
RAW file formats vary significantly between digital camera manufacturers (and often, between different models in a manufacturer's lineup), and the manufacturers generally won't publicly disclose the specification for the RAW file format(s) they use. Some will offer plugins or software development kits (SDKs) that enable their RAW files to be opened in third-party applications, but these generally have some limitations attached to their use.
In addition, the companies generally offer RAW file conversion software of their own, either as part of their camera bundles or as an added-cost option. Nikon offer their pro SLRs with PictureProject software that includes limited control over the RAW file conversion process, and then offer the more feature-rich Nikon Capture conversion software for an added cost. In a recent publication on the company's Nikon Pro website, it suggested that it feels Nikon Capture is better-suited to photographers, while Adobe's Photoshop is more suited to graphic artists. Still, different photographers have different workflow preferences, and for this reason third parties such as Adobe often reverse engineer the RAW file formats, allowing them to be opened in their own software - sometimes with even better image quality than the original manufacturer's software.
In a way, it is understandable that companies would want to encrypt RAW file data from their products - it allows them to pick and choose which competitors are able to open RAW files shot with their products, and allows them to generate new revenue streams from the sale of their own RAW file conversion software (or, if they choose, the sale of licenses allowing competitor programs to access their RAW file data). Nikon is not the first company we're aware of to encrypt data in RAW files; Sony's Cyber-shot DSC-F828 RAW files contain encrypted data. In that instance, however, Sony granted permission for Adobe to decrypt the data in their software. At the current time, Mr. Knoll states that while Adobe has signed a non-disclosure agreement that grants them access to use Nikon's SDK, they have not received any response to requests from Adobe that the company be allowed to decrypt the white balance data, which would allow closer integration with their software than is possible with the SDK.
The fact that Nikon has chosen to encrypt a portion of the RAW file data would not be particularly problematic for third parties to overcome, were it not for certain laws enacted around the world in recent years. One such law is the United States' "Digital Millennium Copyright Act", often referred to as the DMCA, which makes it illegal to produce technology that can circumvent measures designed to protect copyright. One could argue that Nikon's encryption of the white balance data is just such a measure - which would make it an offense for a third party without permission to make software that could decrypt the original white balance setting used by the camera when the photo was shot. One could equally argue, however, that the copyright over the RAW file belongs to the photographer who captured the image - and hence the choice over what is done with that copyrighted work is entirely up to the photographer.
Unfortunately, there's no clear-cut answer, and short of a company or programmer finding themselves in court for having cracked the encryption, there isn't likely to be such an answer any time soon. This presents a problem for third parties attempting to make their own RAW file conversion routines for the D2X and D2Hs, as if they don't want to risk opening themselves up to legal action, they aren't able to determine the original white balance setting. Hence, they must either request the white balance setting from the user as the RAW file is converted, or attempt to determine an appropriate white balance setting automatically (which would not necessarily be the same as that determined by the camera itself).
Nikon hasn't communicated their reasons for encrypting the white balance information in their latest NEF formats, but we have to say it doesn't sound like a very good idea. While Nikon Capture does indeed offer excellent capabilities for people to manipulate images saved in NEF formats, many photographers and organizations have already established workflows based on Adobe's RAW plugin for Photoshop and other image-processing tools. The biggest consequence of this move on Nikon's part seems likely to be to push more photographers onto other camera platforms. It's hard to imagine that increased sales of Nikon Capture will make up the revenue lost from camera and lens sales going forward.