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Casualties mount in Apple vs customers war

Underground medicine

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Analysis It's hard to think of anything that makes Apple's music store more attractive to the general public than the guarantee that the music you've bought will play wherever you want it in your home. However, Apple frowns on such good citizenship, and as we reported earlier today, is using every trick it can to make sure the music stops playing.

But the most remarkable thing about the latest skirmish between Apple and its music customers, reported here, is the sophistication of the underground medicine. The Hymn Project restores the health of AAC files by stripping them of the locks and keys Apple attaches to songs it sells.

"I just want to say thanks to iOpener for allowing me to listen the music I have legally brought on not only my iPod but also my ordinary MP3 player," writes one happy user.

Over the New Year, a new version of the JHymn application for Windows and Mac appeared which takes the files bought through iTunes Music Store and converts them into regular MP3 format. Once converted by Hymn to MP3, the file is safe from the chicanery we saw this week. People who downloaded the iTunes 4.7.1 client software discovered that music they'd legitimately purchased had been crippled. The software update restored the locks and keys to the .mpa files. What's interesting about this week's to and fro is that users could restore the rights without downloading a new version of Hymn. Only three fields were needed to be ticked off in the user friendly graphical client. Sanity was restored.

iTunes Music Store files are proving toxic to the idea of the "converged home". While the innovative new network music players like Elgato and Roku Soundbridge cope with unprotected AAC file just fine, they choke on the lock-down DRM AAC files that Apple sells. Manufacturers don't even have the luxury of paying a licence fee to Microsoft to fix this problem, as Apple won't license the format at all. Fine, shouldn't we allow Apple a monopoly over home audio equipment? But music won't even flow from Apple to Apple, as Apple intended. Try cross-playing a file bought through iTMS from one PC running iTunes to another. Up pops a dialog asking for authorisation.

It takes an unholy alliance of music pigopolist and computer monopolist to force us to beg for permission to use our own ears.

"It doesn't make sense for them to charge us a dollar per song for a song in some format that disables us from using it with anything other than an iPod or our computer," writes one iTunes Music Store customer. For another, patience is wearing thin:

"APPLE: If you continue to pull shit like this, I will stop buying music from you and go back to the CD stores. Once I have the music, it is my right to be able to play it without worry of you keeping iTunes in business. What if McCartney shuts you down? Do I lose the ability to play all the music that I've bought? BS. Stop fucking with us," he writes on the Hymn forum.

And if one unholy alliance wasn't enough, we have two. Microsoft's own Windows Media DRM has similar consequences. But the Asian manufacturers aren't exactly falling over themselves to license it: they've long been wary of a technological dependence on Microsoft, which they see as expensive and unnecessary. Ditto Apple.

Developers are taking two approaches to restoring their rights. The FairKeys approach using code from 'DVD' Jon Johansen connects to Apple's own servers. Hymn looks where Apple has hidden the keys. It's an immensely challanging job as Apple has lots of ways to block its customers from enjoying music they've bought. It constantly issues new keys, it can change the wire protocols, and waiting in the wings is the patented watermarking technology it's developed. But the fact that the Underground Music Doctors dealt with the latest bout of DRM flu so slickly suggests that Apple will need to devote an increasing amount of resources to battling its own customers. The message this sends to the market is simple. Stay away. ®

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