Apple has always been very protective over their proprietary software. The company doesn't want anything but iTunes to control an iPod - and for good reason, too. The iTunes Store is a money-making machine with over 65 million active customers helping the company sell billions of songs, videos, and apps. Despite iTunes' popularity, however, there are still those out there who would rather run their own software.

Reverse-Engineering iTunes

In order to make an iPod work with an alternative software program - like gtkpod, Winamp, and Songbird, for example - developers need to understand a file called iTunesDB. To prevent people from writing to this file, Apple protects it with a checksum hash which has to be reverse-engineered. Usually that process only takes a couple of days.

With the latest iTunes update, Apple has once again changed the hash, meaning it needs to be reverse-engineered again. The developers doing so collaborate together and share their thoughts on iPodhash, an open-source project hosted on Bluwiki, a free web site that lets users create wiki pages.

Now Apple has asked for that site to come down, a request that the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) says is out of line. Earlier this month, a lawyer from Apple's legal firm O'Melveny & Myers sent out a takedown notice to the site stating the content was illegal under the terms of the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). According to the cease-and-desist email, the site is "disseminating information designed to circumvent Apple's FairPlay digital rights management system." It continued, "FairPlay is considered anti-circumvention technology under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The DMCA explicitly prohibits the dissemination of information that can be used to circumvent such technology."

The EFF has jumped on this case, saying that Apple "doesn't have a DMCA leg to stand on." According to EFF senior staff attorney Fred von Lohmann, this move is effectively bending the law in order to stifle free speech. "Apple is essentially saying here that people can't even talk about the mechanisms that Apple uses to lock in its music to the iTunes software," he said.

The EFF web site goes into more details as to why the EFF believes Apple to be in the wrong, listing the numerous reasons why there's no DMCA violation on the site.

Where Does This Leave The Linux Community?

Since the Bluwiki site has complied with the takedown notice, the question is where does this leave the Linux community now? The main reason for the iPodhash project's existence is due to the fact that Apple does not provide a version of iTunes that runs on Linux. The project is an important community effort that helps Linux users create software programs that work with their iPods and iPhones.

Bluwiki's founder, Sam Odio, had said he was unsure if putting the site back online would be possible. Says Odio of his compliance with the takedown notice, "I regret having to do this. I may be able to put the site back online, but quite honestly it's unlikely because I can't afford a legal battle with Apple." Luckily for him, the EFF is now involved, so he will not have to worry with the legal fees.

Apple may only be protecting their very profitable iTunes business, but in this case, they're suggesting that the DMCA covers people merely talking about technical protection measures. If that's so, then as EFF says, "they've got a serious First Amendment problem."

You can follow this case's progress on the EFF's web site, Odio's blog, and on the iPodhash project's homepage.