'DVD Jon' joins another maverick

Copy-protection hacker Jon Johansen will work with MP3.com founder Michael Robertson on new digital audio project.

Two of the digital music world's biggest mavericks are teaming up, as MP3.com and MP3tunes founder Michael Robertson brings Norwegian hacker Jon Johansen into his latest venture.

A prediction? Feathers are likely to be ruffled somewhere in the world.

Johansen is widely known as the independent programmer who released code online in 1999 that can help crack through the antipiracy protections on DVDs. Charged with criminal copyright violations in his home country, he was later acquitted by an appeals court.

Jon Johansen
Jon Johansen

In his blog Tuesday, Robertson said he has hired Johansen to work on a new digital audio project code-named Oboe, which will launch later this year.

"I have always admired his work and his strength to stand up for what he believes is right," Robertson wrote. "He doesn't advocate piracy but does advocate consumers' rights to manage their own purchased content."

No details are yet available on the direction of the Oboe project, or specifically where Robertson wants to take MP3tunes. But a few clues are evident: Both Robertson and Johansen have been working on "open systems," which can mean using other companies' products in ways often unintended by the creators.

MP3tunes was originally launched as Robertson's foray back into the digital music business, several years after he'd sold MP3.com (now owned by CNET, publisher of News.com). In the interim, he'd launched the Linux operating system company now known as Linspire, and the Internet voice project he now calls Gizmo.

The MP3tunes site sells songs online in an unprotected MP3 format. The lack of copy protection has kept the site from selling any music from the major labels.

But Robertson has also been pursuing an MP3tunes side project called Bad Apple. Essentially an iTunes plug-in unauthorized by Apple Computer, it originally provided links to Podcasts inside the iTunes store, and now provides the ability to sync the iTunes software with non-Apple MP3 players.

In an interview with CNET News.com earlier this year, Robertson said he planned to keep expanding MP3tunes to support other devices, and to improve compatibility with other services.

Johansen has been pursuing similar goals on his own, releasing a string of software programs that chip away at the copy-protection tools Apple uses on its iTunes music, and helping provide a back door into Apple's music store that lets other programs buy songs.

Though Johansen was cleared of criminal liability in Norway, he could still face the threat of either criminal or civil legal action in the United States, said copyright attorney Jimmy Nguyen, who heads the Entertainment and Media team at the Foley & Lardner firm in Los Angeles.

"There is an argument that he made the (DVD-decrypting code) available in the U.S.," Nguyen said. "In theory, if the government wanted to try and prosecute him, they could."

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