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Review: MP3 Converter Strips Out Copy Protections

Sometimes, I feel as if I'm the only person out there without an iPod.

Rather, I'm the proud owner of an Archos Jukebox 6000 (search). I bought it more than four years ago, shortly before Apple Computer Inc. released its first iPod.

My Jukebox can do most of what iPods do, and like the iPod of its generation it only does music. No photos. No video. The main exception is playing songs bought through Apple's iTunes Music Store; Apple has made it clear its iTunes service is only for iPods.

New software from United Virtualities Group comes to the rescue.

HotRecorder for Media (search) converts your iTunes songs into standard MP3 files that can play on any MP3 device.

It also makes MP3s out of songs bought through Yahoo Inc.'s music service, in case you want to play them on an iPod, Jukebox or another device that doesn't support the copy-protection mechanism Yahoo uses.

I was skeptical at first. Not that I doubted United Virtualities could pull it off. Rather, I didn't see how HotRecorder differed from the many programs that operate in a similar fashion — by grabbing sound, in real time, as it travels to the computer's sound card for playback, the point at which music is unlocked from any copy protection.

I've had nearly a week to try out an advance copy of HotRecorder, formally released Thursday, and I was impressed.

It knows when songs begin and end and keeps each tune in a separate MP3 file. It also manages to block noise from external applications, such as the ding of an instant message. The orchestral notes from the "Superman" theme song I converted from iTunes do not seem as sharp, but sound quality generally wasn't bad.

I repeatedly got error messages when I tried converting one Natalie Merchant (search) song from iTunes, and attempts to use that same machine to convert four Duran Duran (search) songs from Yahoo produced four empty files. On a different computer, though, the Duran Duran songs converted fine, as did "Superman."

The software costs $19.95, a price the company says will increase to $29.90 in two months. Cheapskates can always burn copy-protected files to a CD, then rip those files into MP3s, but HotRecorder makes all that unnecessary.

But is it legal?

HotRecorder carries a disclaimer that it isn't for converting audio files you don't own. The company's founder, Mookie Tenembaum (search), told me his company merely provides the software and cannot police its usage. Tenembaum says it's no different from a knife manufacturer. It can't control whether its product is used for murder.

Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court has cleared Sony Corp of liability even though some customers used its VCRs to make illegal copies of movies; the high court reasoned that the VCR had legitimate uses.

That said, the Supreme Court ruled more recently, in a case involving file-sharing software from Grokster Ltd., that companies can be held liable if they deliberately encourage customers to infringe on copyrights.

Apple and Yahoo both have service terms that forbid circumvention of copy-protection technology.

I'll leave it to lawyers to sort out whether that clause applies here and whether HotRecorder has any legitimate uses. (Apple and Yahoo declined comment, though Jonathan Potter of the trade group Digital Media Association says it's probably a violation of user licensing agreements.)

Surely, United Virtualities is no newcomer to controversy: It's the developer of a technique designed to restore the data profiles that many privacy-conscious users try to delete from their computers. It's also the company behind some of those floating ads that dance across Web pages, sometimes blocking what you're trying to read.

HotRecorder indeed works — some of the time — in freeing your tunes from copy protection.

Just use it at your own risk.