RealNetworks Selling Songs to Be Played on iPods

Here’s an interesting article from the New York Times: RealNetworks Plans to Sell Songs to Be Played on iPods. What’s interesting is that a key piece of information isn’t being reported, but the PR spin clearly is. The article states:

    Tomorrow, without Apple’s authorization, RealNetworks will start to give away software that will allow people to buy and download songs from its online music store and then play them on Apple’s popular iPod portable devices in addition to those that use the Windows Media Player format and RealNetwork’s Helix format.

    This will be the first time any company other than Apple has sold songs for the iPod. While the Microsoft Corporation has freely licensed the Windows format to various music stores and makers of portable players, Apple has kept its business proprietary. This has helped Apple keep the dominant market share both for online music stores and portable players with hard drives, the more lucrative half of the player market.

Wow, that darn Apple has sure been stingy, hasn’t it? Valiant Microsoft has freely licensed Windows, which makes it better.

But let’s read on:

    In April, Robert D. Glaser, the chief executive of RealNetworks, sent an e-mail message to his counterpart at Apple, Steven P. Jobs, asking him to license Apple’s format. Mr. Jobs never replied, Mr. Glaser said last week.

    So RealNetworks created technology that can create files to be read by iPods. Mr. Glaser declined to say how it did this. But Josh Bernoff, an analyst with Forrester Research, said that RealNetworks used a technique known as reverse engineering – observing how Apple’s software behaved as it encoded songs to be loaded onto iPods.

First of all, it sounds clear that Rob Glaser is peeved that he’s not worth Jobs’s time. Given the quality of Real’s Mac software, that’s not surprising. But what’s not said in the article is exactly what format these new files are. The RealNetworks software is “creating new files,” so my first guess is that it’s simply creating non-DRM MP3 files, which the iPod can play without any trouble. (That’s how you can rip your personal CD collection.)

If RealNetworks has actually reverse-engineered Apple’s FairPlay DRM, then is that a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)? Or is reverse-engineering okay as long as you’re not cracking the DRM?

Update: it looks as if Real’s Harmony does in fact convert files to Apple’s FairPlay DRM. Apple released a statement this week saying it was “stunned that RealNetworks has adopted the tactics and ethics of a hacker to break into the iPod, and we are investigating the implications of their actions under the DMCA and other laws.” I’m sure this will head to court, although I still think this is a (successful) attempt by Real to strongarm Apple in a PR war.

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