DRM-buster DVD Jon has a new target in his sights, and it’s a big piece of fruit. He has reverse-engineered Apple’s Fairplay and is starting to license it to companies who want their media to play on Apple’s devices. Instead of breaking the DRM (something he’s already done), Jon has replicated it, and wants to license the technology to companies that want their content (music, movies, whatever) to play on Apple devices. This may not be good news for iTunes the store, but it could make the iPod even more popular.
Jon Lech Johansen became famous for hacking encrypted DVDs so they would play in Linux when he was 15, making him the target of criminal charges for which he was eventually acquitted. Last year he moved from Norway to San Diego to work for Michael Robertson. But the work — a digital locker for music — didn’t captivate Johansen, so he struck out on his own at the beginning of the summer.
Twenty-two-year-old Johansen moved to San Francisco to work with Monique Farantzos, who had contacted him after reading a Wall Street Journal profile of him last fall. The two now live in the Mission District and devote their time to DoubleTwist Ventures, which is Johansen’s first major attempt at commercializing his hacking. They haven’t raised any outside money because they have already found at least one (undisclosed) paying customer.
Johansen isn’t much of a swashbuckler; he barely touched his Heineken when we were out at drinks last week. But he has a lot of chutzpah, and related the story of how he emailed Steve Jobs and set up a lunch meeting in January.
Johansen and Farantzos went down to Cupertino for an audience with King Jobs, but weren’t terribly specific about their new company’s plans (to be fair, at this point, they didn’t quite know what their plans were). Jobs apparently warned that while Apple was not a litigious company, other tech firms might not take kindly to whatever DVD Jon might be up to. Ha!
Johansen doesn’t think what he’s doing is illegal; he’s adding DRM rather than breaking it. He and Farantzos were giddy about the prospect of Apple’s iTV, hoping companies will pay up to get movies on the set-top box when it comes out, after seeing the ill effects of being shut off the iPod. Spurned by Apple? Step right up.
This is a different twist on the constant battle between DRM crackers and builders (see, just last week, Microsoft’s lawsuit against a hacker for releasing an app that strips off its PlaysForSure DRM). If successful, DoubleTwist will eliminate Apple as a middleman to its own hardware. But in doing so, it just might help Apple sell more of that hardware. Apple enjoys fat margins on its devices, and perhaps should turn a blind eye, for now.
We won’t be crossing our fingers for Jobs to keep his non-litigious promise, though.
Photo of DVD Jon by Irina Slutsky