Mac Scope

Pepsi's Free iTunes, Digital Rights Management, and the Super Bowl Ad

Stephen Van Esch - 2004.02.04

There's a bit of outrage regarding Apple and Pepsi using kids that have been targeted by the RIAA in their Super Bowl ad. Whether they really are the kids being targeted or simply actors is beside the point.

This, I think, is a good thing. The outrage, that is. Several other articles, such as Double Jeopardy for kids caught in Pepsi Apple promo, have covered the "child abuse" angle well enough that we won't rehash it here. What this ad does do quite effectively is put the spotlight on Digital Rights Management (DRM) and how it affects us all.

Currently, the iTunes Music Store has met with great success. Millions of people are purchasing songs, and many businesses see an opportunity to turn something that has been considered illicit into something that is considered legal. The iTMS is no fluke but the result of hard work and compromises by both the recording industry and Apple.

The result of the partnership is digital rights management. There was no way that the recording industry would allow their songs to be downloaded without some control over the content after it was downloaded. There was no way the iTMS could ever be launched without a large library of songs.

Depending on your perspective, DRM is either the greatest thing going or the worst thing ever created. Both of these perspectives were perfectly captured in the Super Bowl ad. From one side, DRM is a good thing because it means that the recording industry and its artists get compensated for creating music. It's hard to argue that companies shouldn't be compensated for the products they create. Without compensation no one would create anything.

On the other side of the coin, the ad clearly shows a single group reaching into the private lives of people and threatening or launching lawsuits. It also shows people being put under control of this group.

DRM, in effect, extends the control of a product that once ended when the product was purchased. Until DRM, when someone purchased a CD and walked out of the store, the industry didn't have any way of controlling what the buyer did with it. Users could copy and share as many copies as they wanted without anyone being the wiser.

The final line of the ad exemplifies this: "There's not a thing anyone can do about it."

Before DRM, this would have meant that there wasn't a thing anyone could do about you using a copied CD. Now it means there isn't a thing anyone can do about you downloading a free, company sponsored, DRM-protected song that allows an industry to control the product after it leaves the shelf.

This is not to say that DRM is good or bad, merely that with the success of iTMS may have glossed over the fact that consumers have lost a certain amount of freedom with the move to digital downloads. Whether they ever deserved that freedom in the first place is up for debate.

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Stephen Van Esch is the founder and president of the E-learning Foundry, an online training resource for Mac users. Steve loves the Mac and is doubly bilingual, since he's also fluent in Windows and French.

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