DVD-Jon Liberates the iPod – Digital Music Wars Take New Direction – Unlocking the Devices
23 October 2006There’s an interesting article about our friend Norwegian Jon Johansen (“DVD-Jon”) in the 30 October edition of Fortune Magazine. Jon has done it again! He has has figured out how to improve existing technology by reverse engineering it and building innovative new software that expands consumer choice — this time for digital music.

You may remember in 1999, when 15-year-old Jon Johansen posted DeCSS, a tool created to build a DVD player for the Linux operating system, and started a fire-storm of movie studio lawsuits under the brand new 1998 US Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and California trade secrets law. (Jon was also acquitted twice in Norway by the Norwegian Supreme Court). The DeCSS case was my first case as an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and we were all treading on unchartered territory in those days. Since then, the DMCA and other anti-circumvention laws have created a legal quagmire for reverse engineers that has kept us all too busy.

I enjoyed lunch with Jon recently in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury to hear about his exciting new venture. Now he is 22 years-old, still hacks for freedom, and has created cool new software that could break open digital music distribution. Jon’s company DoubleTwist could change the balance of power in the digital music wars by breaking the lock that device manufacturers have on what music can be played on “their” devices. [ Where has the US Justice Department’s Anti-trust Division been anyway?] Jon has reverse engineered Apple’s encryption technology, called Fair Play, which is the technology Apple uses to make its system a closed system. One must go through a lot of technical wrangling to play iTunes songs on non-iPod devices, which makes it not a reality for those who are not computer geeks, i.e., most people. And Jon’s software will allow the formats of competitors like Real Networks and Sony Connect to play on the iPod, providing artists and consumers with more choice.

The uncertain legality that reverse engineers face when building software that interoperates with proprietary code since the passage of laws like the DMCA stifles technological innovation. With his “So Sue Me” website, Jon stands in the shoes of all innovators trying to build cool new gadgetry that expands existing technical capabilities and consumer choice. Well-known internationally as a “white hat” hacker with solid legal backing, Jon is less likely to face a lawsuit than other developers in his shoes. But until laws like the DMCA are repealed, the 99% of other computer programmers, security researchers, reverse-engineers, cryptographers, etc. who are clever enough to figure out how to take a technology apart, improve upon it, and put it back together, remain under threat of legal liability.