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EFF accuses Apple of muzzling iPhone hobbyists

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The operator of a wiki website has filed a federal lawsuit that accuses Apple of trying to squelch protected speech after it demanded the removal of posts discussing ways hobbyists can make iPods and iPhones work with software other than iTunes.

OdioWorks claims Apple's demands that the posts be removed from BluWiki violate its First-Amendment rights to free speech. The suit, which was prepared by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, seeks a judgment that the statements don't infringe Apple copyrights and an order forbidding Apple attorneys from claiming otherwise.

"Apple's conduct has forced OdioWorks to choose between risking legal liability or stifling the free expression BluWiki was created to promote," the complaint (PDF) states. "The sole purposes of the [removed] pages is to enable interoperability of current iPod and iPhone software with independently created media management programs."

An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment.

According to the complaint, Apple's attorneys demanded three postings be removed because they constituted copyright infringement under the DMCA, or Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Collectively referred to as "iTunesDB Pages," they discussed ways Apple goes about making sure its devices don't work with competing audio software such as Winamp and Songbird.

iPods and iPhones use the iTunesDB file to provide its owner with access to media files indexed by artist name, playlist, or song title. Since September 2007, the devices have had to check a cryptographic hash value that is generated by iTunes to be able to access iTunesDB. If the hash can't be located, the devices show the file as empty, "thereby making it impossible for the iPod or iPhone owner to play media files stored on her device," the suit asserts.

Hackers figured out how to circumvent the measure, so last July Apple revised its hash generation system so hobbyists once again were unable to use third-party software with newer iPhones and iPod Touch models.

One of the posts Apple demanded be removed contained "initial discussions and information intended to assist those interested in reverse engineering Apple's revised July 2008 hash generation mechanism to enable third party media management software to interoperate with new models of Apple's iPod and iPhone devices," the complaint states. Included in the discussion was code identified as "memcpy."

Although the participants were unsuccessful in their attempts to reverse engineer the hash generator, Apple lawyers demanded the thread be killed. Their emails claimed BluWiki was "disseminating information designed to circumvent Apple's FairPlay digital rights management system." It went on to state that "the DMCA explicitly prohibits the dissemination of information that can be used to circumvent such technology."

Fearing legal action, OdioWorks quickly responded by removing all three posts.

The lawsuit, filed in US District Court in San Francisco, takes strong exception to Apple's legal analysis. None of the censored pages constitutes a "technology, product, service, device, component, or part thereof" so Apple's claims that they violate applicable copyright statutes are false, the complaint argues. "iPod and iPhone users, not Apple, own whatever copyright may inhere in the iTunesDB files contained in their iPods and iPhones, and therefore are authorized to access and modify these files as they see fit."

Over the past few years, EFF has repeatedly advocated on behalf of hackers to modify the devices they own. Late last year, for instance, the group pressed for an extension to exemptions in the DMCA that would make it legal to unlock iPhones and other kinds of handsets. The group has also worked to ensure that free speech online isn't trumped by content owners claiming intellectual property rights.

But this time around, the EFF is on less tested ground, said Eric Goldman, a professor specializing in internet law at Santa Clara University. That's because the DMCA and free speech have largely been viewed by courts as being independent doctrines that stand alone rather than deciding one trumps the other.

"It's really a First-Amendment challenge to the DMCA provisions," he said. "That raises some complex, tough issues that we don't have legal clarity about. It's unclear how courts are going to feel about this type of free-speech challenge to the DMCA." ®

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