September 7, 2007 | By Fred von Lohmann

Apple Lays Foundation for DMCA Lawsuits?

Apple's new product announcements this week may have laid the foundation for the next round of DMCA lawsuits. It sure looks like Apple is using the DMCA to block competition, rather than stop "piracy."

First suspect: ringtones on the iPhone. Just before the Apple announcement of its new ringtone offerings (that'll be 99 extra cents, please), Ambrosia had announced iToner, a new piece of software that allows iPhone owners to use any MP3 or AAC file as a ringtone. In other words, no more need to pay Apple for the privilege.

Apple's response? Well, apparently the latest "upgrade" to Apple's iTunes software (v. 7.4) auto-magically erases any unapproved ringtones that iToner installs. This is reminiscent of the 2004 battle between Apple and Real over Harmony. If Apple installs "technical protection measures" to block iToner, then we could see a DMCA showdown between Ambrosia and Apple over iToner.

Second suspect: locking the iPod video output. iLounge reports that the latest generation of iPods refuses to output video to cables, docks, and accessories that lack an Apple "authentication chip." If this is true, then it may represent an attempt by Apple to use the DMCA to limit competition and interoperability, in a manner reminiscent of Lexmark's printer toner cartridge lock-out chip or the infamous DMCA garage-door opener case.

In the $2 billion annual market for iPod accessories, I'll bet many vendors will have an incentive to reverse engineer the video output interface, rather than being forced into Apple's "Made for iPod" licensing program (Apple reportedly seeks a royalty of 10% of wholesale price from accessory makers). In short, this is another recipe for a potential DMCA legal showdown.

Notice that neither of these Apple "lock-in" measures has any obvious relationship with preventing "piracy." As we've been saying for years, this appears to be the real legacy of the DMCA -- even as the music industry abandons DRM as an anti-piracy measure, Apple deploys it as an anti-competition measure.

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