Jon Johansen’s getting headlines again today for supposedly breaking the iPod’s content protection technology, similar to the way he broke DVD copy protection in 1999.
A reader from Mukilteo e-mailed me to share his thoughts on Jon’s ethics:
“Doesn’t it seem ironic that a hacker is now trying to make money from something he has hacked. Will he be upset the same as the companies he has hacked, when someone hacks his ideas?”
A good point, and I’m sure lots of people are waiting for that moment to come.
But I wonder if Johansen’s latest venture has been mischaracterized as a hack. That’s a sexy story — that a famous hacker broke open the iPod — but it sounds to me like he’s really developed a different form of content protection that will be palatable to everyone but Apple. That’s a long way from cracking the DVD copy-protection scheme, and it doesn’t sound like he’s breaking any locks other than the Apple lock-in.
This interview with Johansen’s business partner makes it sound like the new technology mimics Apple’s FairPlay content protection. It can be applied to other content, a move that can fool iPods into “thinking” they’re playing FairPlay content.
The technology can also be used to play FairPlay content on non-Apple hardware, apparently by fooling the content into “thinking” it’s on an iPod. But it doesn’t allow unlimited copying.
It sounds awfully similar to the FairPlay workaround that RealNetworks developed two years ago in its Harmony software. It allowed content purchased from Real to be played on the iPod, and Apple had a hissy fit.
Jon’s saying he’s got already got a buyer of his technology. Record labels would be interested in alternative ways to sell protected content to iPod owners.
What would be really interesting is if a company like Microsoft endorsed or even licensed his technology, giving them an indirect way to bypass Apple’s restrictions. If it really does pass legal muster, Microsoft could even suggest using Johansen’s technology to play iTunes content on the Zune.