Free software project undaunted despite Apple threats

The PlayFair free software project is likely to come online again soon, despite efforts by Apple Computer to close it down.

Apple last month shut down last the free software project, which lets tool users play music from the Apple iTunes Music Store on hardware not authorized by Apple, such as GNU/Linux PC, provided an authorized key is available.

Sarovar (http://sarovar.org) a free software development community site based in Thiruvanthapuram, India, said it would stop hosting the PlayFair project after site sponsors received a legal notice from Apple's attorneys alleging infringement of copyright. Apple sources were not available for comment.

After Sarovar decided to stop hosting PlayFair on its site, Anand Babu, a free software proponent, took over as the project's maintainer. "PlayFair project will soon come online," Babu said. " We are working on a better version, and we are hosting it outside the U.S." A number of groups have come forward to host and mirror PlayFair across the Internet, said Babu, who lives in Tamil Nadu, India.

The iTunes jukebox software is currently available on the Mac OS (operating system) and Windows. Music that is bought and downloaded can be played on any number of Apple iPod music players, and a mix of up to five Windows PCs and Macintosh computers. Apple uses the AAC (advanced audio coding) format in combination with DRM (digital rights management) technology to protect the music bought from its iTunes Music Store.

PlayFair has fallen foul of Apple ever since it was first hosted by its author, who prefers to be anonymous, at SourceForge.net, an open-source software development Web site in the U.S. owned by Open Source Development Network (OSDN). In early April, Apple invoked the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and asked SourceForge.net to take down the project.

As the DMCA has an anticircumvision provision that could work against continuation of the project in the U.S., PlayFair was moved to Sarovar at the request of the author, according to Rajkumar Sukumaran, one of the maintainers of the Sarovar site.

Since India does not have a law similar to DMCA, Sarovar approved the project as it is legal in India, Rajkumar said. As PlayFair is a GPL (general public license), free software project, Sarovar could not find any reason for not approving PlayFair's request for hosting, he added.

Despite the decision to remove the project from the Sarovar site, free software proponents are defiant. "What is really happening is that a corporation is using legal means to shut down a free software project in India for the first time, and the small project is left defenseless even though they believe that they are right," Rajkumar said.

The decision to stop hosting PlayFair on Sarovar was not taken because the site believes it has infringed Apple's copyrights, but because it did not want to drag the purely voluntary sponsors of the site into a legal battle with Apple, Rajkumar said.

PlayFair is a tool to enable fair use for music purchased from Apple's iTunes music service, Rajkumar said. It does that by stripping the DRM mechanism from a song, provided the key for playing the song is available. PlayFair is licensed under the GNU GPL.

PlayFair takes a protected AAC audio file from the iTunes Music Store, decodes it using a key obtained from an iPod or a Microsoft Windows system and then writes the new, decoded version to disk as a regular AAC audio file, according to Rajkumar. "It then optionally copies the metadata tags that describe the song, including the cover art, to the new file," he said.

PlayFair is not music theft, according to Sarovar. The PlayFair tool does not give the user any special facilities that Apple itself has not given to the user.

"PlayFair requires a valid key from Apple to convert the format of music downloaded from iTunes," Rajkumar said. "PlayFair cannot convert downloaded songs' formats without authorized keys bought from Apple. PlayFair is also not a music distribution program. All PlayFair does is convert songs from one restricted format to another less restricted format." PlayFair is also not a method for making illegal copies of iTunes songs, according to Rajkumar, who added that PlayFair alone cannot be used to copy music to CD, distribute on a peer-to-peer sharing network, play music or edit songs.

Although Apple is likely to take legal action against any other site hosting PlayFair, Babu is undaunted. "I have faith that we will prevail in this matter," Babu said. "The public will recognize that the PlayFair code is both lawful and appropriate and support us all the way."

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John Ribeiro

IDG News Service
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