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Monday, April 27, 2009, 03:10 pm PT (06:10 pm ET)

Apple sued for threatening wiki host over iTunes code

A site host for a wiki covering iTunes database exploration has opted to fight back against repeated legal threats from Apple by suing the iPod maker in court on grounds of censorship.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation's (EFF) legal counsel helped site manager OdioWorks LLC file the lawsuit (PDF) in a Northern District of California court on Monday as a measure it says will help defend against "bogus" legal threats from Apple.

OdioWorks, which runs the free and open wiki service BluWiki, wants to bar Apple from repeatedly threatening its own legal action simply for letting BluWiki users host a wiki for iTunesDB, a project to learn about iTunes' database file system and create third-party software that can replicate the sync functionality of iTunes for iPhones and iPods without forcing users to run Apple's own media software. Over the course of several months, Apple has claimed the very existence of iTunesDB violates the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)'s rules on circumventing copyright locks and, in November, successfully frightened OdioWorks into taking down the wiki entries.

Now, the plaintiff argues in its 11-page complaint that it had only agreed to the initial request to avoid the lawsuit and that it believes BluWiki posters' free speech rights are being violated by requests likened to outright censorship by both OdioWorks and the EFF.

"Companies like Apple should not be able to censor online discussions by making baseless legal threats against services like BluWiki that host the discussions," OdioWorks founder Sam Odio says.

The EFF specifically maintains that it's fully legal to perform reverse engineering for the purposes of fair competition, such as allowing an iPhone to sync outside of iTunes. It also claims that OdioWorks' decision to run BluWiki as a non-profit and entirely user-driven content service should exempt the company proper from facing legal threats. No one writing the iTunesDB wiki had even confirmed that they had cracked the code, the lawsuit notes.

The organization and OdioWorks further charge that Apple has been outright dishonest from a technical standpoint. Where Apple insists that reverse engineering a certain slice of memory copying code equated to an attempt to break the FairPlay anti-piracy protection that, until April of this year, guarded a significant number of songs on the iTunes Store. That software only related to generating a hash value that Apple deliberately instituted in September 2007 as a protection measure that would prevent accessing iTunesDB, according to the lawsuit. It implies that Apple's release of iPhone 2.0 firmware in July 2008 again revised the hash creation technique with an eye to breaking third-party support a second time.

If successful, the lawsuit would bar Apple from making any DMCA or other copyright claims against OdioWorks as well as legal fees and "any other relief" the California court believes is due.

While Apple in its typical fashion hasn't commented on the lawsuit, the iPhone era at the company has been characterized by a heightened level of secrecy around access to the software that girds the touchscreen device, the iPod touch and their relationship to iTunes. The Cupertino electronics designer has had a more relaxed attitude towards the file structure on click wheel iPods and has done comparatively little to restrict owners of iPod classics, nanos and shuffles from loading music through software like Songbird, which is one of the few jukebox programs to recognize iPods in Linux.