Microsoft will take some well-deserved heat for letting copy protection drive it to make bad decisions for technology and consumers, but Apple has also played an unappealing role in the world of copy protection. An antitrust suit against Apple has just been given the green light by a US District Court. It’s about the iPod and Apple’s attempts to control the digital music market, and the arguments are pretty compelling.

The complaint lays it out pretty clearly: “Apple deliberately makes digital music purchased at [the iTunes Store] inoperable with its competitors’ digital music players. . . . In order to play music from [the iTunes Store] on a digital music player, then, a consumer’s only option is the iPod. Apple sells the iPod at prices far exceeding those that would prevail in a competitive marketplace. Apple also makes the iPod unable to play music sold at its competitors’ online music stores. In order to purchase Online Music to play on an iPod, then, a consumer’s only option is [the iTunes Store].”

The results have been very good for Apple. Currently, Apple controls about 83 percent of the online music market, 75 percent of the online video market, more than 90 percent of the hard drive-based MP3 player market, and more than 70 percent of the flash memory-based MP3 player market.

The underlying issue is the proprietary file format sold by the iTunes store and used by the iTunes software by default. Most people think their music files are “mp3 files,” but they’re probably not. The mp3 format doesn’t support any copy protection; iTunes sells and creates files in a proprietary format that can’t be played in anything but an iPod. Here’s essential information for anyone listening to music on a computer or a handheld device.

And that draws attention to a secret about the iPod. The hardware in the iPod, manufactured by PortalPlayer, has built-in support for Microsoft’s Windows Media Audio (WMA) format. Apple shuts off this compatibility with an ugly hack to cripple the iPod, which prevents iPods from playing those files or using any competing online music store. I’m not a big fan of antitrust lawsuits – the competition in these markets is too fierce and fast-moving. But that does add an interesting spin to things, doesn’t it?

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