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Harmony tunes player into Rhapsody

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Real Networks has effectively reverse engineered Apple's iTunes Music Store DRM system, FairPlay, having failed to persuade the Mac maker to license the technology.

Real will this week issue a beta release of Harmony, a Rosetta Stone for DRM, that promises to allow users to convert one copy-protection mechanism to another.

In particular, it will allow music fans to download songs from Real's own online music subscription service and play them on an iPod. The iPod's 'preferred' music format, AAC, is DRM friendly, in as much as the file structure - unlike that of MP3, say - was developed to allow the inclusion of DRM data. So Real just converts songs to AAC, then writes in DRM information based on its own policy. This can then be read by iTunes, the software used to copy music to the iPod.

Since the system does not bypass target DRM technologies, it's unlikely to fall foul of the European Union Copyright Directive (EUCD) or the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which forbid such intervention.

However, it could present Real with legal challenges if Apple believes its intellectual property was suborned during the development of Harmony. As yet, Apple has not commented on Harmony, and is probably waiting to see exactly what the software can do before responding.

Ditto Microsoft, since Harmony is expected to convert Real tracks into DRMed WMA-format songs.

Certainly there's no altruism behind Real's technology. In an interview with AP last week, CEO Rob Glaser said: "We are making it so that consumers can buy music once and play it anywhere."

The crucial bit is 'buy music once', and that means from Real's own Rhapsody service, fed by Listen.com, which Real acquired last year. Real's music business has been cast into the shade by ITMS, Napster and Sony Connect. iPod is the clear leader in hard drive-based portable music players, and is the key player for mind share. So Real needs iPod support much more than Apple needsReal. Few, if any, player makers have licensed Real's own formats and DRM system.

No doubt there are some iPod owners who are also ITMS customers but would prefer the all-you-can-eat monthly subscription model touted by Real. But we suspect the technology will appeal more to Real users who want to buy an iPod rather than iPod owners who want to buy from Real.

That leaves Harmony as little more than a bargaining tool with Apple and Microsoft, to be used to encourage them to license their respective DRM technologies. It's not a strong bargaining position, but it it's all you have, you've got to go for it.

In April, Glaser attempted to persuade Apple to license FairPlay, but his overtures were unsurprisingly rejected.

Harmony has a broader importance. Assuming it faces no legal challenge, Harmony paves the pay for the development of DRM conversion software from companies that have no stake in online music sales and thus can be trusted not to try and push listeners toward one particular service. If coupled with format transcoding software, that would allow consumers to buy from any service and play the results on any hardware, which is what buyers want. ®

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