A hymn to fair use
May 12, 2004
Playfair is back, for the third time, this time hosted out of the US by a party who claims that they are prepared to weather the inevitable legal storm. The name of the project has been changed to Hymn.
For anyone unfamiliar with the story, Hymn is designed to remove the restrictive FairPlay DRM incorporated into Apple’s iTunes Music Store purchases.
Hymn actually makes a reasonable case for being nothing other than a fair use tool.
- It can only be used on songs you can currently play on iTunes—in other words, songs that you have purchased or otherwise legitimately have permission to use.
- It leaves all of the iTMS metadata information in the file, including the purchaser’s ID—so putting music that you’ve purchased and run through Hymn onto P2P services is like tattooing “Sue Me!” on your forehead.
In theory, it also will enable you to put the song you purchased onto a non-iPod “mp3 player” without transcoding (and losing quality), but in order to do that, you’ll need a non-iPod that plays AAC, and you might have to look quite a ways to find one.
The reality is that about the only thing this is good for (and it’s very good for) is to be able to get around the “three authorized computers” restriction that Apple’s DRM enforces. (Note—this limit was raised to five computers in the recent iTunes upgrade, but it’s still the same problem, albeit with a longer leash).
Why is this important?
Let’s see… My laptop died in January (one authorization gone). I did a “full install” of Panther on my eMac rather than an upgrade install without considering the consequences (two authorizations gone), and I recently had a failure that caused me to have to re-install XP on my desktop without being able to get back into iTunes to de-authorize it (three strikes, and I’m out). To get these authorizations requires a lot of hassling with Apple’s technical support, and they’ll only do it a limited number of times. Beyond that, I’ve got machines in other parts of the house I’d like to be able to exercise my fair use rights on—just like taking a store-bought CD to the room I want to listen to it in. Hymn would appear to be just the ticket to solve all of these problems.
Certainly you could always just burn a CD and then re-rip it to MP3 or AAC without DRM, but doing so requires transcoding, which will always have a fairly significant loss of quality. When you purchase songs from iTMS, one of the things you’re purchasing is the quality of the encoding.
Hymn’s biggest problem in the US is that it’s a DMCA violation to reverse-engineer DRM. Hymn’s author, although staying anonymous claims that he is not overly worried about this since the code used for this was developed by another party.
As a U.S. resident, is it a violation of the DMCA to use Hymn, even though you’re doing it to simply exercise the fair use rights you’ve had since the Betamax decision? Who knows? The smart thing to do is probably to avoid it.