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Apple and the Digital Rights Management debate

iTunes couldn't work for Apple without Digital Rights Management (DRM), as then you could buy a song once and pass it on to three million people. The music companies Apple uses to supply content to the iTunes store would totally spit the dummy.

While Apple clips the ticket for every song that moves over iTunes, naturally, the company passes on a percentage to the musicians and to the aforesaid companies, too. Most people would agree you ought to be paid for your efforts. (Funny, that.)

But to those weaned on the amazing repository of ‘free' songs out there (not to mention movies and more) in the bad old days of peer-to-peer file sharing find this hard to understand.

There's more to the iTunes DRM than that, though. The DRM in iTunes also stops iTunes songs from being played on non-Apple devices. Currently, music purchased from iTunes cannot be played on digital devices purchased from other companies, and protected music purchased from other online music stores cannot play on iPods.

Some find this fact most annoying and intrusive, even though the reasons are clear enough. Only so-called ‘unprotected' music can be played all over the place - say, files ripped from most audio CDs you own.

To make iTunes what it is, Apple had to make a commitment to the music companies to stop its music being illegally copied. Apple worked hard to engineer a situation in which a song purchased on iTunes can be played on up to five computers you authorise, and as many iPods as you want. This wasn't a bad deal for the user, and seemed to keep the music companies happy.

Apple decide to keep the FairPlay code to itself, though, concluding that if it licenses FairPlay to others, it can no longer guarantee to protect the music it licenses from the big four music companies it created such effective deals with.

For the record, Steve Jobs would prefer that there was no DRM at all, writing "If the big four music companies would license Apple their music without the requirement that it be protected with a DRM, we would switch to selling only DRM-free music on our iTunes store." He likes this idea because it's the best for consumers.

Remember, the very same Big Four music companies which wanted these protection deals with Apple sell millions of tracks of music on audio CDs mostly carrying no protection whatsoever. Rip the songs into iTunes and you can make as many copies of them as you wish and spread them far and wide (which I am not advocating, by the way; it's just that you can).

But there's more. As a way of protecting the link between iPods, iPhones and the iTunes music store databases stored on those devices, Apple began employing a hashing algorithm late last year which masked transactions between a device's database and the music store. It meant iPods could only conduct transactions through iTunes using Apple's software. All fine, as iTunes is available free for Mac and PC - but there's no version for Linux.

The iTunesDB file is the database index that iPod operating systems use to keep track of what playable media is on the device. Unless an application can write new data to this file, it can't sync music (or other content) to iPods, and this is what the hash prevented.

As Scott M Fulton points out on betanews, it only took a day or two for Linux users to crack Apple's scheme when it was introduced in 2007. So Apple reworked it this year to make it more difficult.

Eventually, independent engineer Sam Odio posted a crack for the second, tougher scheme. So Apple sent Odio a takedown notice, indicating his work could be construed as a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Apple characterised Odio's project as an assault on its ‘FairPlay' DRM system.

So far, it sounds fairly cut and dried. Bu then the Electronic Frontier Foundation announced it was prepared to represent Odio in court against Apple. Senior staff attorney Fred von Lohmann is preparing to argue that the iTunesDB file stored on individual users' iPods no more belongs to Apple than would every web page that has ever appeared in Safari.

To clarify, he said "the iTunesDB file is to iTunes as this blog post is to Safari - when I use Safari to produce a new work [ie a new page on a blog], I own the copyright in the resulting file, not Apple."

It's all about whether a database's content change signifies an authorship change or not. And it's an issue likely to take years to resolve in the US legal system.

You see, Apple may have written the software that makes the iTunesDB possible, but it's the users who write the contents of the iTunesDB file. Apple doesn't. The database is the result of individual choices iPod owners make when deciding what music and other media to put on specific iPods.

You might think Apple could just pay Odio for his code, give it a nice interface and release it for the Linux users. But perhaps Apple hasn't considered this approach; the company has even tried to stop people publicly discussing the reverse-engineering of the hash code. It will be interesting to see where this one goes.

This article originally appeared on the New Zealand Herald blogs - http://blogs.nzherald.co.nz