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Last Updated: Friday, 25 March 2005, 00:40 GMT
Let fans decide on digital rights
CD and Apple iTunes
The consumer will ultimately decide on "fair use" of content
Finding a way around digital rights management systems is not the real issue when it comes to music downloads, says technology analyst Bill Thompson.

The argument over the use of digital rights management (DRM) to control the distribution and use of music and other content took an interesting turn this week.

A program called PyMusique was released that sidesteps the protection on songs bought from Apple's iTunes Music Store.

It was written by a Norwegian coder.

The programmer, Jon Johansen, is famous for breaking the CSS (Content Scrambling System) protection used to scramble DVDs.

Since then he has devoted a lot of his time to finding ways around other copy protection systems, especially Apple's FairPlay.

Work it out

His latest project, PyMusique, is a replacement for iTunes and provides an alternative way of shopping at the iTunes Music Store that lets you buy unlocked songs.

It can do this because iTunes, like many other internet applications, is based on a client-server model.

One program - the server - sits there waiting for another program - the client - to ask it to do something.

It is the way e-mail, websites, chat and even many peer-to-peer networks work.

What Jon and his fellow programmers have done is work out exactly what information the iTunes client sends to the store, and what responses it gets back when someone buys a song and downloads it.

Jon Johansen in court
Jon earned the nickname "DVD Jon" for his exploits
Then they have written their own program that does all of the same things with one key exception: their code does not add the FairPlay digital rights management wrapper to the downloaded music file.

The result is that you pay Apple the money, but in return you get a digital music file that can be freely copied, burned to CD or streamed over wireless networks to speakers around your house.

Instead of having to accept the limitations that Apple has placed on what you can do with the music you have purchased, you can use your own judgment as to what is fair and legal.

Apple does not like this, as one might expect, and it has quickly moved to block the first release of PyMusique from working by making everyone use only the latest release of iTunes when shopping.

Jon and his friends figured out how to get around this, and a working version of PyMusique was released within a few hours.

Devoted to rights?

By the time you read this it, too, may be blocked, but the war of attrition could go on for a while.

It is great having people like Jon around because he combines astonishing technical ability with devotion to the spirit of copyright law and the importance of "fair use" rights.

That is, the freedom to do things like make copies for personal use, or keep backups, or just play music on any computer or portable player you happen to own.

For him, the purpose of PyMusique is not to encourage people to break copyright law but to point out how technology is being used to take away freedoms that we should be fighting to preserve.

Like any programmer, I am deeply impressed by his coding skills, and he has done more than anyone else to show the absurdity of claiming that digital rights management software is a sensible solution to the problem of unlicensed copying.

Technology analyst Bill Thompson
The real pressure on Apple and the other online music sites will come not from the technowar being waged by Jon Johansen, however entertaining it might be to watch from the sidelines, but from consumer choice

But I do not think that this latest project is very helpful, and it could end up giving Apple a political and public relations success that will make it harder to resist DRM in future.

The main problem with PyMusique is that it is in clear breach of the terms of use of the iTunes Music Store.

If you want to buy music from Apple then you have to use iTunes: it says so, it is clear about it and it is very unlikely that a court would consider it an unreasonable contract provision and rule it invalid.

So if you get music using PyMusique you do not have a valid licence to listen to it, and anything you do with it is a breach of copyright just as much as if you had downloaded it from the old Napster.

The fact that you have tricked Apple into taking your money and giving you a file is no more of a defence than fooling a vending machine into accepting euros and then arguing that because they were worth the sterling equivalent of what you were buying it is really OK.

I have a similar problem with the legal actions being taken against Apple around the world.

In France, the consumer rights organisation Union Fédérale des Consommateurs-Que Choisir is pursing both Apple and Sony over the way their DRM limits consumer choice.

While Geek.com reports that a Californian music fan is suing Apple over there because he cannot play other downloaded music files on his iPod.

You choose

But nobody forced me to go out and buy an iPod or any other music player, and while I disapprove of Apple's approach to locking out the competition, I think this is something which will be resolved by market pressure not by regulation.

There is a simple solution for those who, like me, disagree with Apple's approach to selling music online and that is not to buy any.

Jon Johansen in court
Jon earned the nickname "DVD Jon" for his exploits
I do not buy locked-down music, so I will not buy songs from iTunes or anywhere else that limits what I can do with them.

Instead, I use sites like betterPropaganda, which have indie artists and unlocked files.

But most of the time I simply buy CDs and rip them to my hard drive.

I get the artwork, I get a high quality copy of the music that I can re-copy at any time if I should lose my digital version, and I get a music file I can play on any device I choose, now or in the future.

There is, a lawyer friend assures me, no legal problem with this since there is an implied licence to make digital copies for personal use, and as I am no longer running my own P2P network node or have never made copies for commercial gain I am happy to take the risk.

The real pressure on Apple and the other online music sites will come not from the technowar being waged by Jon Johansen - however entertaining it might be to watch from the sidelines - but from consumer choice.

If nobody bought their locked-down music files then even the major artists might decide it was time to change the way that the online music business is going.


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




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