Both Sides Now: The Real/iTunes Flap

family_ipod01062004logo_realLondon’s Financial Times has published a well researched commentary on the current Real/iPod flap:

“You could tell it was a bizarre feud by the statement Apple issued, one strangely at odds with the Palo Alto Zen-chic the company normally projects. “We are 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 [Digital Millennium Copyright Act] and other laws.” What vile thing had RealNetworks done? They had developed a program called Harmony that would allow iPod owners to buy songs from Real’s Music Store and play them on their own iPods. That’s it. So why all the outrage? It turns out that this little controversy has a lot to teach us about the new economy.”

The first lesson of the story is how strangely people use the metaphors of tangible property in new economy disputes. How exactly had Real “broken into” the iPod? It hadn’t broken into my iPod, which is after all my iPod. If I want to use Real’s service to download music to my own device, where’s the breaking and entering? What Real had done was make the iPod “interoperable” with another format. If Boyle’s word processing program can convert Microsoft Word files into Boyle’s format, allowing Word users to switch programs, am I “breaking into Word”? Well, Microsoft might think so, but most of us do not.

This leads us to the law. Surely Apple’s legal claim is as baseless as their moral one? Probably, but it is a closer call than you would think. And that is where the iPod war provides its second new economy lesson.
…But thanks to some rules passed to protect digital “content” (such as copyrighted songs and software) the constant arms race over interoperability now has a new legal dimension. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act and equivalent laws worldwide were supposed to allow copyright owners to protect their content with state-backed digital fences that it would be illegal to cut. They were not supposed to make interoperability illegal, still less to give device manufacturers a monopoly over tied products, but that is exactly how they are being used. Manufacturers of printers are claiming that generic ink cartridges violate the DMCA. Makers of garage door openers portray generic replacements as “pirates” of their copyrighted codes. And now we have Apple claiming that RealNetworks is engaged in a little digital breaking and entering. In each case the argument equates the actions required to make one machine or program work with another to the actions required to break into an encrypted music file. For a lot of reasons this is a very bad legal argument. Will it be recognised as such?


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