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RealNetworks Inc. said Monday it would start selling through its music store songs that can be played on Apple Computer's popular iPod, defying Apple's attempt to make its player compatible only with music downloaded from its iTunes store.
The disclosure is part of a broader initiative by RealNetworks to increase the number of devices that can play music from the multimedia software maker's Internet store.
To increase its reach, the company said it has developed digital rights-translation software, called Harmony Technology, which makes it possible to keep the copyright protection contained in downloaded music. Proprietary security technology often ties songs to particular music players. Apple, which has refused to license its FairPlay copy-protection technology, did not return requests for comment.
Besides the iPod, RealNetworks said music purchased from its site would also play on hardware from Apple rivals that support Microsoft's music software. Harmony is set for release Tuesday.
A RealNetworks spokeswoman said the company's software doesn't violate Apple's intellectual property, saying the technology was developed through "good old-fashioned engineering and having smart minds working on a project."
RealNetworks claims it did not break Apple's protection through reverse engineering, which is the process of taking software apart, analyzing its workings in detail, and then reconstructing a new application that does the same thing, without actually copying anything from the original. This is important because the federal Digital Millennium Copyright Act made it illegal to reverse engineer software to bypass protections embedded by the original author.
"Under the act, you have to be very careful about reverse engineering to try to overcome mechanisms placed in the software to prevent disclosure," said Lawrence Rosen, a lawyer for the technology law offices of Rosenlaw & Einschlag in Ukiah, Calif.
However, court rulings have been mixed, and issues of reverse engineering related to operating software on multiple devices are unsettled.
RealNetworks' new technology is certainly good for consumers, who would benefit from being able to play downloaded music on any device, much like today's CDs and DVDs. "Anything that leads to more choice and more flexibility in how you manage your music is a big win for consumers," Gartner analyst Martin Reynolds said.
But in attempting to usurp Apple's control of its technology, RealNetworks could find itself facing the computer maker in court. "Apple will have a choice," Reynolds said. "They may decide to let it ride, but, ultimately, they have a business to protect."
And it's a business that appears to be operating in a growing market.
Digital music sales are expected to more than double this year from 2003 to more than $270 million, according to JupiterResearch, a division of Jupitermedia. By 2009, the market is expected to reach $1.7 billion, or 12% of the total consumers are projected to spend on music.