Breaking through Apple's FairPlay

DVD Jon and partner Monique Farantzos work to break through the wall Apple has put up around iPod and iTunes.

Joris Evers Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Joris Evers covers security.
Joris Evers
5 min read
DVD Jon is at it again. But this time, he's in it for the money.

Jon Johansen, the 20-something hacker widely known for helping crack the piracy protections on DVDs several years ago, is taking on Apple Computer again. He has reverse-engineered Apple's FairPlay, the digital rights management technology used to make iPod and iTunes a closed system.

As reported earlier, the Norwegian has started DoubleTwist Ventures to license his work. The technology will make other online music stores work with Apple's iPod device and let iTunes songs play on gadgets other than the iPod, said Monique Farantzos, Johansen's business associate and DoubleTwist co-founder.

The current situation is unsustainable.

Farantzos said she made contact with Johansen after reading a profile of him in The Wall Street Journal. The pair sees a business in making digital media interoperable. They started working on this in the spring and are now talking publicly about it. The first customer has signed on, though its name is not being disclosed.

If successful, DoubleTwist could break through the wall Apple has built around its music business. Farantzos, a biophysicist by training but now into technology business development, talked about the company's plans and challenges with CNET News.com. (Farantzos photo courtesy of J.D. Lasica.)

Q: What is it the company doing?
Farantzos: We have two components in the business. One is to enable other online stores to wrap their content with FairPlay so that it works on the iPod. Major labels and studios do not release their content unprotected. If you want to offer DRM protected content and you want it to play on the iPod, you have to use FairPlay. So we have developed a method for making content compatible with the iPod.

We also plan to allow competing devices play iTunes content. When you buy a DVD, you know that the DVD will play on your Toshiba or Sony or Philips player, but when you buy music or video online, you don't have that. It is kind of like the zoo: Every animal is singing a different tune. We hope to make sense of that, and we have developed a technology to enable that.

And this is technology developed by Jon.
Farantzos: It is based on Jon's work.

And this technology isn't something that Apple can easily shut the door on, as they've done in the past with RealNetworks' Harmony? Will we see update after update to keep it working?
We have our own way to make sure it works and keeps on working. An important element is that the user will not need to do anything on their part. We have technology that basically guarantees that it works for them. User-friendliness--we thought that through extensively.

What if Apple finds out how this works and updates its technology to block your hack? Or do you not think this can happen?
It is not as easy as it sounds. They have sold 1.5 billion songs and there has to be some level of backward compatibility, otherwise it is going to be very painful for their users. We are confident that what we have works and will keep on working.

Can you give me an example of how your technology works? Say I'm a maker of media players, and I would like my device to be able to play iTunes content?
You would license some code that you would embed in your device and then there would be an application that would be installed on the computer that the device is syncing with. Essentially, what we do is trick iTunes into thinking that the device is an iPod.

Is your technology ready to be licensed and used, or is it still in development?
Some parts of it are ready, and there are still things we're improving upon. Online stores offering content for the iPod--that is going to come first. What they would do is just add another button on their site that says: "Click here to download this to your iPod." Sure, the iPod supports MP3s, but that is kind of a moot point because I cannot buy a major band in MP3 format, almost nobody offers unprotected content.

Being able to play iTunes songs on other media players, that needs more time to develop. Any idea when that might be done?
Yes, we're still working on that. I can't give a timeframe.

Next year sometime, or even before the end of the year?
Well, we joke that Steve Jobs will not send us a Christmas card this year. I am sure some people at Apple are upset about losing their monopoly.

Do you think you can get away with this?
We have consulted extensively with attorneys. Wrapping content with FairPlay is definitely within the limits of the law. We're not removing any copy protection, we're simply adding copy protection.

Over the next few months, on the hardware side, you're going to see interoperability become more and more of an issue, and there may even be some antitrust concerns that come up. I think we're in pretty good shape.

Are you betting that antitrust concerns will come up and that you will be the first to offer the remedy?
We're kind of in the first wave, yes. The current situation is unsustainable. Now Microsoft is coming out with their own closed system, and I even read something about Real coming with their own closed system with another manufacturer.

It is the law of the jungle out there. Things have to start working. The devices and music have to start working with each other; otherwise, consumers will probably end up buying pirated or unprotected content to solve their problem if we don't solve it for them.

You haven't heard anything from Apple yet?
What would they say? It would be premature for Apple to do anything anyway. We have not heard from Apple at all. (Apple declined to comment.)

Your company is DoubleTwist Ventures. Is it backed by any venture investors?
There are some individuals supporting it. We've been in a unique situation as a start-up, because we've been profitable since Day One. We have encountered overwhelming interest for our products.