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Much ado about DRM

12pm, 14th April 2007 - Geek, Rant, News, Apple, Legal

Locked music.

Apple makes an announcement.

I know I'm weighing in a little late for the debate on Apple and EMI's announcement that they are dropping DRM for songs sold on the iTunes Music Store but I've never been one to jump in early and voice my opinion before I've fully formed it. I was kind of hoping that some of the other labels would follow suit and maybe even some of the other online music stores would jump on Steve Jobs' bandwagon and publicly renounce DRM before I sat down to write.

Dave reads between the lines.

Firstly, about the pricing/quality model: it's a crock. There is no need to tie DRM (or the lack of it) to the quality of the encoding and therefore the price of the song. I suspect that EMI required this so that if it didn't work out they would have an exit strategy that wouldn't leave too much egg on their faces. They can simply claim that consumers didn't want higher quality music for higher prices and then go back to their old, low-quality, low-price songs and pretend that DRM had nothing to do with it. Many people wouldn't buy that ruse but PR-wise it would look better than "We experimented with non-DRM songs and didn't like it so we're putting DRM back on everything."

Too many choices.

Apple are offering whole albums at the higher quality with no DRM and at the same price as before but the point of the iTMS is that you don't have to buy the whole album to get the songs you like. Most albums have some filler on them and many albums only have one or two good songs. As a consumer, you are now caught in a difficult place: do you buy just three songs for 99p each (£2.97), or the same three songs with DRM at a lower quality for 79p each (£2.37) or the whole album at the higher quality, without DRM but with songs you will not like for somewhere around £8 ? With more choice comes more confusion. I sincerely hope they drop the DRM from the lower quality tracks once the trial is over and make the choices less confusing for the average consumer. Remember, of course, that you can remove the DRM from downloaded songs for a cost of about 1-2p per track plus the time taken up in the process simply by burning them to a CD and then re-ripping back to mp3 (or aac or wmv or ogg-vorbis... whatever tickles your fancy.) but for most people this effort is more than the result is worth.

Good for iPods.

Steve Jobs must have known that he was getting close to announcing this deal with EMI and wrote that famous open letter partly to deflect criticism from the iTMS but more importantly to have his views about DRM on the record before the deal went public. That way everybody gives Apple (and Steve Jobs) the credit for removing DRM. Even if other labels and other music stores had deals like this in the pipeline, even if they get them out the door first, Apple will still be seen as the innovator because Steve Jobs said he was against DRM before anyone else. Besides all the good publicity, the deal itself provides iPod owners with a greater freedom of choice. I personally know someone who was given an iPod as a present no more than two months ago who traded it in for another brand because "She could only buy music from the iTMS." Ignoring the fact that you can put all of your existing non-DRM MP3s on it quite happily, it now won't be long before you can buy songs from any music store and play them on your iPod. I may be going out on a limb here but I think that this will be good for iPod sales. Had my friend received her iPod a few weeks later she may have simply been happy with it. It is still a bit of a gamble for Apple. Without Apple's FairPlay DRM you can quite happily switch to another music player and take all of your songs with you. This leaves Apple competing with all the other players based on the quality of the player itself, rather than having users of the iTMS locked in to iPods because no other player can play FairPlay encoded tracks. That is, however, an arena in which Apple have already shown they can compete.

Bad for WMA.

Now that music stores can sell EMI tracks without DRM, non-iTMS music stores can now target the iPod. They've been wanting this ever since the iPod snaffled a majority share of the portable music player market. But the iPod doesn't play WMA and the only thing forcing them to stay with WMA is it's DRM capabilities which the labels require before they'll license the music. Without that requirement, music stores are most likely to choose MP3 or AAC and switch all of their music. They would be shooting themselves in their feet to do otherwise. Since the iPod supports both of those formats, every non-DRM track sold on other music stores will now play on an iPod. Sure, the Zune supports MP3 and AAC but it's WMA that Microsoft really wants on their Zunes. They make far more money out of licensing WMA to music stores and music device manufacturers than they will ever make out of selling the Zune.

Little by little.

I know this isn't a win for consumer rights. It' a compromise. We want all music to be ours once we have purchased it; to do with as we wish. The music labels want to make as much money as they can and they are using copyright law to achieve this. They are doing everything in their power to make every one of us pay for every little service they provide, even if it is as little as being allowed to listen to the same song on your home sound system, your computer and your portable music player. If they could, they'd be happy to see you purchase that song three times to achieve that Utopian dream. So we fight and they fight and the result is somewhere in the middle. Some people would say that we should hold out for more. That we shouldn't accept this price hike for non-DRM tracks and we should demand that we get all our tracks without DRM for the same price as before. I say that these people will never be happy. A step forward is a step forward. Now we start fighting again and when we win the next battle - even if it is still only another compromise - we will be another step closer to what we really want. And I'll be ever-so-slightly happier about it.

Related posts:

Dave's rebuttal of Macrovision's response to Steve Jobs' open letter about DRM in iTunes
How different must a copy be before it is no longer a copy ?
iPhone and Security: Spreading the FUD.
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