Johansen acquired his famous hacker moniker when, as a teenager in Norway, he was involved with the release of a program called DeCSS, which circumnavigated the CSS digital rights management software used on DVDs.

After prodding from the Motion Picture Association of America, Norway officials prosecuted Johansen under that country’s infringement laws. But officials could not obtain a conviction, mainly because the prosecution could not prove that Johansen had illegally copied anything. However, Johansen’s legal adventure transformed the programmer into a cyber-cult hero, an anti-establishment computer cowboy sticking it to The Man.

News reports have described Johansen’s latest project as having reverse-engineered FairPlay, the DRM technology Apple uses on music sold on iTunes. FairPlay prevents iTunes purchases from playing on any player other than the iPod and prevents songs wrapped in other DRM technologies from playing on iPods. It is this second feature, giving other DRMs iPod compatibility, that Johansen’s latest programming code is all about.

One of the most controversial aspects about Apple’s iTunes/iPod combo is the iPod-only DRM copy protection. Because Apple sells almost 90 percent of the world’s legal music downloads, other online stores look at that userbase as a yet-untapped market just ripe for competition. That is, if only their music would play on iPods.

It was only a couple of years ago when RealNetworks tried to cross over into iPod territory by releasing its “Harmony” software, which enabled non-FairPlay formatted songs to play on iPods. However, Apple quickly tweaked its code to prevent Harmony compatibility. In response, RealNetworks upgraded Harmony to overcome Apple’s upgrade, leading to another upgrade from Apple. End result? FairPlay continues to be the only DRM technology that plays on iPods, while Harmony is a footnote in the RealNetworks history book.

But unlike Johansen’s first claim to fame – unlocking copy-protected DVDs – his latest endeavor doesn’t exactly unlock or remove copy protection from anything. Instead, it gives iPod compatibility to songs sporting digital rights management technology other than FairPlay.

For example, if a company sells songs formatted with Microsoft’s Windows Media DRM technology, Johansen’s new program will enable those songs to play on iPods with the original copy-protection rules intact.

Which is kind of ironic when you think about it. Johansen’s initial 15 minutes of fame came about from his involvement with the release of software that bypassed copy protection technology. Now he’s in the news for creating technology that preserves copy protection while enabling songs to be played on a closed system.

Johansen, who now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, plans to market his technology through his new company, DoubleTwist Ventures. The idea is that DoubleTwist will license the technology to companies wanting to sell iPod-compatible songs.

Which would be a good thing for iPod owners wanting to purchase songs from online music stores other than iTunes. Of course, online stores could always sell their songs in the non-protective, iPod-compatible MP3 format, but a snowball has a better chance in you-know-where than the major labels doing an about face regarding MP3s.

Johansen’s DoubleTwist says it already has a client lined up to use the new technology. So far there has been speculation that Apple’s lawyers will pounce on Johansen and his client as soon as the technology hits the marketplace. However DoubleTwist isn’t exactly shaking in its boots.

“There’s a certain amount of trouble that Apple can give us, but not enough to stop this,” said DoubleTwist’s Monique Farantzos, described in news reports as the company’s “only other employee.” “We believe we’re on good legal ground, and our attorneys have given us the green light on this.”

It should be noted that Apple never initiated legal action against RealNetworks over the latter’s Harmony product. But it should also be noted that’s lawyers greenlighted the fiasco that resulted in one of the largest copyright infringement penalties in history.

Although Apple has not commented on Johansen’s latest venture, a Q&A interview with Steve Jobs recently appeared on Newsweek’s Web site, where Apple’s CEO commented on some of the iPod-compatibility issues.

When Newsweek asked Jobs whether it was fair to his customers that iTunes purchases will only play on iPods, Jobs replied, “Well, they knew that all along.”