Nikon Defends Encrypted NEF Format

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April 25, 2005 *– In response to recent complaints from photographers and engineers about the encryption of its RAW white balance data, Nikon issued a statement defending their proprietary RAW file design. Nikon’s digital SLR users claim images captured by the camera – and the data used to make them – belongs to the photographer. However, Nikon wishes to keep the data encrypted to protect its trade secrets, among other things.

"Nikon’s preservation of its unique technology in the NEF file is employed as an action that protects the uniqueness of the file," the Nikon advisory stated. "At the same time, Nikon makes available a software developer kit (SDK) that, when implemented appropriately, enables a wide range of NEF performance, including white balance, for Nikon photographers and their productive use of the NEF file."

The SDK is available to "bona fide" developers who must write to Nikon for approval, the release stated. When new cameras are introduced, Nikon must update the kits with new information – such is the case with the Nikon D2X, D2Hs, and new releases. The Nikon digital cameras come with PictureProject software, which has a software license agreement that protects Nikon’s interests.

"The software contains trade secrets, and in order to protect them, you may not decompile, reverse engineer, disassemble or otherwise reduce the software to a human-perceivable form," the agreement states. Photoshop co-author and developer Thomas Knoll said photographers or software developers who do try to reverse engineer the code could get into legal trouble with Nikon through the license agreement or Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998.

Nikon files can open in Photoshop, but only when a plug-in is downloaded. When Nikon’s RAW files are opened in Adobe Photoshop, there is a shortened list of EXIF data. Surprisingly, there is more file information for JPEG files in terms of resolution, shutter speed, aperture, and other shooting parameters.

This suppression of information sparked a group of photographers to launch openraw.org, a web site that lobbies for RAW file availability to achieve more control over an image. The web site was launched today in response to "photographers’ frustration with camera manufacturers’ refusal to openly document their proprietary RAW file formats," today’s press release stated.

"Our primary strategy is to educate the public and the manufacturers," said Juergen Specht, a German photographer heading up the OpenRAW group. "Once photographers understand what’s at stake, and once digital camera manufacturers understand how their profitability will be enhanced by the release of the RAW file format specifications, our goals will be realized."

Their vision has already been realized at Adobe Systems Incorporated, who created a standardized Digital Negative Format (.dng) and announced it last September. Leica and Hasselblad agreed to support the format in March and will include it on their upcoming SLRs as the RAW format of choice.

"Professional photographers and other creative professionals are moving to raw camera workflows because of the outstanding creative control they get over digital images," said Bryan Lamkin, senior vice president of Digital Imaging and Digital Video at Adobe. "However, clients and publishers have difficulty working with disparate raw file formats and nobody can be sure that today’s raw formats will be supported ten years from now. Adobe customers asked us to work on a unified, public format for raw files and that’s what we’ve delivered with the new Digital Negative Specification."

Nikon photographers worry that their RAW files won’t be supported by future software programs because of the encrypted data. "If the current practice of hiding data and dropping support for older cameras continue, countless images will be unreadable with no software to decode them," OpenRAW’s release stated. "Only openly documented RAW formats will make it possible to decode RAW files in the future."

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