Blown To Bits

Apple’s Anti-Competitive Use of Copyright

Saturday, March 14th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

On page 216 of the book, we joke that DMCA might stand for “Digital Millennium Competition Avoidance” rather than “‚Ķ Copyright Act.” The idea is that if a company puts a digital lock on any interface to its equipment, then the anti-circumvention provision of the DMCA makes it illegal for an maker of accessories to reverse-engineer the lock to figure out how to make a compatible accessory. Apple Computer has given us a classic example of this technique.

If you walk into any electronics store or any WalMarts, you’ll find lots of earphones that you can use with your iPod, in case you lose the ones it came with, or they don’t fit your ears, or whatever. The earphones are on the racks with slipcovers and lots of other non-Apple stuff that accessorizes iPods. Of course you can buy Apple earphones, but maybe you’d rather buy the ones that fit better.

Well, Apple wants you to buy Apple earphones. The way the capitalist world is supposed to work, Apple is supposed to achieve that by making better earphones, or by cutting its prices. Everyone else has the same incentives, and the consumer wins from the competition.

Oh, not in the America of the DMCA. Apple has engineered the new iPod Shuffle so that the replacement headphones won’t work unless they have built into them an “authentication chip” the headphone maker can get only from Apple. Now the headphone maker is prohibited by law from trying to figure out what the “authentication chip” does so it can make headphones you can just plug into the Shuffle without, in essence, asking Apple’s permission and paying Apple money. So Apple winds up controlling the headphone market.

A classic case of copyright law being put to a use that has nothing at all to do with the protection of books or music or images — just to kill competition, to the advantage of one company and to the plain disadvantage of the public.

Thanks to Fred von Lohmann of the Electronic Frontier Foundation for raising a stink.

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