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27 November 2008, 15:10

Online civil rights campaigners criticise Apple

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US online civil rights organisation the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has strongly criticised the computer and entertainment electronics company Apple for closing down an open source project using a cease and desist notice under the US DMCA copyright act. The iPodhash project has been trying for several months to circumvent the hashing mechanism with which Apple protects the iTunesDB file on the iPod classic, iPhone and iPod touch. The cryptographic technology ensures that Apple's music players can only properly communicate with the associated iTunes software, and not with competitor applications such as Songbird which in addition to Windows and Mac OS X also run under Linux.

The iPodhash authors want to investigate and eventually circumvent this mechanism using reverse engineering. For Apple, this is an attack on its FairPlay DRM software, which is used to protect music, videos and applications on the iPod and iPhone from use which is not licensed by Apple. The EFF takes a somewhat different view. In his blog, Fred von Lohmann, in-house counsel at the online rights organisation, writes that Apple "doesn't have a DMCA leg to stand on," and states that iPodhash is not about circumventing copyright protection to produce pirated material, but solely about access to the iPod database. In addition, he notes that the iTunesDB file is not itself protected and that the hashing mechanism's only purpose is to ensure that only Apple can write to the file. This "cannot qualify as access controls protected by... the DMCA," he continues. Von Lohmann notes that under the copyright act, which was introduced under the Clinton administration, reverse engineering of the type used by iPodhash for the purpose of ensuring interoperability is very much permissible.

Apple's hashing mechanism has already been cracked on a number of occasions – the first version in less than 36 hours. However, the iPodhash project has not yet succeeded in doing this, for which reason the EFF is even less able to understand the cease and desist notice. Following the DMCA notice, a page explaining the hashing mechanism has for the time being been removed from the iPodhash project wiki. The EFF now plans to assist the website owners in getting it back online.

(Ben Schwan)


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