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Apple targeted in DRM monopoly suit (again)

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Steve Jobs has received a New Year nastygram from a woman who is upset that iPods won't play Microsoft DRM-crippled songs as well as Apple DRM-crippled songs.

Lawyers representing Stacie Somers filed a federal anti-trust complaint in Northern California District Court in San Jose on New Year's eve.

The suit alleges that: "Apple has engaged in tying and monopolising behaviour, placing unneeded and unjustifiable technological restrictions on its most popular products in an effort to restrict consumer choice, and to restrain what little remains of its competition in the digital music markets."

Somers' legal beagles point to Apple's use of PortalPlayer media chips in iPods. They're commodity parts that decode MP3s and WMA files. Apple disables the WMA capability because it does not pay Microsoft's Windows Media licensing fees.

According to the complaint, this means "Apple's crippleware operating system software prevents the iPod Shuffle from playing WMA files".

"Apple's iPod is alone among mass-market Digital Music Players in not supporting the WMA format," it continues.

Apple is abusing its huge share of the music player market by supporting only its inhouse Fairplay DRM, they reckon. Somers isn't the first to make the claim by a long chalk.

This time, the claims are predicated on the increasingly outmoded view that rights owners "are generally unwilling to license their music for online sale except in protected formats". Amazon now carries unlocked MP3s from three of the four major labels, along with hundreds of independents.

It's worth highlighting the irony of attacking one alleged monopolists' media lock-in system by complaining that it doesn't support another, convicted monopolists' media lock-in.

Somers' lawyers call on European investigations of iTunes to back up their anti-trust allegations. The links seem weak, however: the EU is investigating how Apple forces consumers to use the iTunes store for their own country, not probing anti-trust concerns.

Norway, meanwhile, has taken a pop at Apple's own Fairplay DRM system, not its lack of WMA support.

El Jobso himself has called for DRM to be dropped across the board by record labels.

For what it's worth, Somers' court filing is here.

Apple told Information Week it doesn't comment on pending litigation. ®

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