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iTunes lawsuit challenges DMCA

Apple sued after pressuring open-source project

Apple is being sued by the operator of a technology discussion forum, claiming that the company used US copyright law to curb legitimate discussion of its iTunes software.

The lawsuit, filed Monday, could test the limits of the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). It centres around an open-source effort to help iPods and iPhones work with software other than Apple's iTunes. Last November Apple's lawyers demanded that the Bluwiki.com website remove a project called iPodhash, saying that it violated the DMCA's anti-circumvention provisions.

The lawsuit was filed jointly in US District Court for the Northern District of California by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and attorneys representing OdioWorks a small Herndon, Virginia, company that runs Bluwiki. Lawyers argue that the iPodhash discussions were about reverse-engineering software, not breaking copy protection, and ask for a court ruling to clarify the matter.

The EFF has previously argued that reverse engineering in order to build new products is permitted under the DMCA. However, this case is a little different, according to Fred von Lohmann, an attorney with the digital civil liberties organisation. "This is the first time I've seen a company suggest that simply talking about reverse engineering violates the DMCA," he said. "All of the previous cases have been cases that involved actual successful reverse-engineered tools."

Bluwiki is a free wiki service that hosts discussion pages for a number of projects. After Apple's November takedown letter, three web pages that talked about a cryptographic function used by iTunes were removed from the Bluwiki website.

Open-source developers have been working on breaking cryptographic mechanisms used by iTunes since 2007. That's when Apple first introduced a special operation, called a checksum hash, into its products to ensure that Apple's devices were communicating with iTunes and not some other type of software. 

Developers reverse-engineered Apple's checksum mechanism, but in late 2008 the company introduced a new version of the crypto-technique with its iPod Touch and iPhone products. That's what was being discussed when Apple filed its takedown notice.

The EFF and OdioWorks say iPodhash was trying to get the iPod and iPhone to work with other software such as Winamp or Songbird, and that the work would also help iPod and iPhone users who ran the Linux operating system, because Apple doesn't ship a version of iTunes for Linux.

However, in a December 17 letter to the EFF, Apple's law firm said that the EFF is "mistaken" to assume that this technology is only used to authenticate the iTunes software. The work also threatens Apple's FairPlay copy-protection system, the letter states.

Apple did not respond to requests for comment on the lawsuit.

In an interview on Monday, OdioWorks Founder Sam Odio said that he believes that the iPodhash's lead developer, who went by the pseudonym Israr, would pick up the discussion if OdioWorks and the EFF win the case. "What this guy was doing was legitimate," Odio said. "He was just trying to reverse engineer Apple's products to try to get them to work with Linux and other third-party software"


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