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Last Updated: Friday, 30 July, 2004, 11:00 GMT 12:00 UK
Are Real and Apple playing fair?
Will the fight between Apple and Real over digital downloads help music fans, asks technology analyst Bill Thompson?

Godzilla
Who is the goodie and who is the baddie?
My son Max is a great fan of Godzilla and has tapes of most of the old Japanese movies from the 1950s and 1960s.

He loves watching Godzilla batting his old enemies, like King Gidorah and Mothra, but I always get confused and have to ask which is the good monster and which is the bad one.

I had the same reaction when I heard about the arguments between Apple Computers and RealNetworks over Real's new Harmony service.

The service lets users buy songs from Real's music store and play them on an Apple iPod as well as dozens of other different portable music players.

Who exactly is the goodie here? Is it Apple, whose shiny toy has sold in the millions and provides an easy-to-use way of listening to good-quality digital music on the move?

Or is it Real, breaking down the barriers that exist between different file formats, different portable players, different online music stores and different digital rights management systems?

Playing fair

My usual rule here is to side with the smaller player, the one that is trying to disturb the equilibrium, challenge those who dominate the market and provide new products and services to users.

In this case, I feel like I am watching Rodin and Mechagodzilla monsters battle over who can do the most damage to Tokyo, with no good monster in sight to protect us all.

Bill Thompson
While the record companies do not like unprotected music, it is not illegal to own or listen to it. It is only unlicensed sharing and copying it that could get you into trouble
Apple has locked tracks from its iTunes music stories using FairPlay, a proprietary technology which they do not license to anyone else.

And all that Real's Harmony does is convert files from one type of digital rights management (DRM) format to another, so that iPod owners can now buy a song from the Real store and turn it into a file which their iPod will play.

It will do the same for Windows Media DRM, and supports many portable music players, but that is all.

It does not free the music from the limitations imposed by the record companies, who will only license the songs for download if they are restricted in the ways they can be copied, shared or burned to CD.

And it does not get around the fact that fair use rights built into copyright law are being eroded by DRM technologies.

If I buy a book or a CD, I can sell it, even though I only have a license to the words or music.

I cannot do the same with a downloaded music file, even though copyright law would let me, because the record companies have decided to take that freedom away from me.

There are programs around to do this, like Jon Johansen's hymn ("hear your music anywhere"), which decrypts FairPlay protected music files and allows you to convert them to other formats and assert your fair use rights under copyright law.

And there are open music formats like Ogg Vorbis which provide good sound quality with no DRM.

Or you can use any format you want without any DRM at all if you rip your own CDs.

And while the record companies do not like unprotected music, it is not illegal to own or listen to it. It is only the unlicensed sharing and copying of it that could get you into trouble.

Battle ahead

As you might expect, Apple and Real could end up in court over this.

Apple have already threatened legal action under the controversial US Digital Millennium Copyright Act, arguing that Real is breaking the law by interfering with the Fairplay copy protection technology it is using.

Apple's iPod
Apple's shiny toy has sold in the millions
This could be a hard one to prove. Real is not taking the protection away from any music bought from Apple, just adding it to music bought from them.

But the real danger is that Apple will simply change the way that FairPlay works so that it breaks Real's Harmony.

It has already threatened this in a press release which condemned Real's "hacker tactics" and said "it is highly likely that Real's Harmony technology will cease to work with current and future iPods".

This is similar to what happened with instant messenger (IM) services, when AOL constantly changed the way Aim operated to break any third-party services that tried to interface with it.

It is perfectly legal to do this, but it could also be seen as anti-competitive. Apple should not fear competition in the downloaded music business.

In the Godzilla movies, the good monster probably does just as much damage as the baddie, trashing cities, causing tidal waves and scaring people, even if it is trying to defend the humans.

And so it is with Apple and Real.

Both choose to present themselves as friends of the people, offering us a liberation that we only need because our digital freedoms have been eroded.

Perhaps it is time to uninstall RealPlayer and trade in my iPod.


Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.



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