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iPod DRM faces another reverse-engineering challenge

Posted by iNext - 2005-11-23

A company that specializes in rights-management technology for online stores has declared its plans to reverse-engineer the FairPlay encoding system Apple uses on iTunes Music Store purchases.

The move by Cupertino-based Navio Systems would essentially break Apple’s Digital Rights Management (DRM) system in order to allow other online music retailers to sell downloads that are both DRM-encoded and iPod-compatible by early 2006.

“Typically, we embrace and want to work with the providers of the DRM,” said Ray Schaaf, Navio’s chief operating officer. “With respect to FairPlay, right now Apple doesn’t license that, so we take the view that as RealNetworks allows users to buy FairPlay songs on Rhapsody, we would take the same approach.”

In 2004, after unsuccessfully courting Apple to license FairPlay, RealNetworks introduced its Harmony technology, which allowed users to buy music from online sources other than the iTunes Music Store and transfer it to their iPod. RealNetworks’ move was then denounced by Apple as adopting “the tactics and ethics of a hacker to break into the iPod.” In December of 2004, Apple shot back by releasing an iPod software update that disabled support for RealNetworks-purchased songs.

RealNetworks spokesman, Matt Graves, confirmed that this has been the only time that the company has seen any problems with its Harmony technology.

Content downloaded from iTunes is encoded with the FairPlay DRM system, effectively putting limits on how customers can use the content. Content providers want to use FairPlay because of the popularity of the iPod, which is incompatible with all DRM formats other than FairPlay. Apple has declined to license the technology to outside vendors.

FairPlay also appeals to content providers because of its ease of use. Apple’s DRM is considered to be one of the less obtrusive forms of DRM on the market.

“Sony’s rootkit fiasco has shone a nasty spotlight on DRM mechanisms, and tha’s not necessarily bad for Apple,” said Jupiter Research analyst Joe Wilcox. “FairPlay is a highly unobtrusive DRM. Consumers only see that FairPlay is there when [they are] trying to violate rights privileges. I can’t say the same about WMA DRM, for which, in testing, I’ve had trouble on nearly all stores and devices.”

But Navio’s Schaaf insists that his company won’t be fazed by Apple’s vow to thwart attempts to make FairPlay-compatible files without Apple’s blessing.

“As technology advances with a software release or a different encoding scheme, you also need to have grandfathered rights for prior versions of songs,” Schaaf said. “If a change is made or required then we would do it just the same way that Real or others would do it.”

Apple representatives were not immediately available to comment on Navio’s plans.

Schaaf described Navio as “DRM-agnostic,” adding that the company was only providing the technology that its customers are asking for. “Whether it’s Helix, WMA or FairPlay, our customers indicate what kind of DRM encoding they want and then we provide them with a solution,” he said.

Schaaf declined to say exactly what types of Navio-powered stores would sell files using the FairPlay DRM, but he noted that Navio collaborates with companies in many markets. “We are working with a number of studios, a number of [music] labels and we are working with [cell] carriers. What we do is a unique package when you put it all together,” Schaaf said.

Schaaf likens Navio’s business to a person who buys a movie ticket—the ticket is bought for a specific show, and it can either be redeemed or given to someone else to redeem.

“For us it’s about the issuing of a right that grants you access to data or content and even non-commercial things like a calendar, for instance,” Schaaf added. “Fundamentally we believe the best opportunity for us today is in the digital content space. That’s where we have been focusing with customers such as Fox, Sony and others that we haven’t announced yet.”

Schaaf had nothing but praise for Apple and said Navio would like to work with the company in the future. “Apple did a phenomenal job of providing a vertically integrated solution—they should be applauded for what they did,” he added. “The vertical approach that Apple took, we would like to broaden and provide a horizontal solution for those content owners. That’s what content owners are asking for. If Apple wishes to work with content providers and partners, then we would embrace that.”

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