Steve Jobs Stirs Up the DRM Hornet’s Nest

2007 – Steve Jobs spoke to the world last Tuesday about his outlook on digital music and what, if any, continued role DRM would have in the marketplace of digital music. While carefully worded – indeed no talk of DRM as it relates to video was broached – the written statement linked from the Apple homepage was quite frank about the subject.

Steve Jobs' Thoughts on Music

Three possibilities are considered with regards to where the mainstream online digital music market will continue, and while I don’t want to rehash the entire essay by giving a point for point analysis, I do want to get to the crux of Mr. Jobs’ viewpoint. Basically, for whatever the motivation – whether the recent spat Apple has had over the last year or so with the various European governments demanding FairPlay interoperability, possible future inroads by other competing DRM ecosystems into FairPlay’s market share, or some other cunning misdirection attempt – Steve Jobs seems to have decided DRM is an overcomplicated and untenable solution.

Indeed, most music sold is DRM free. Sure, a large percentage of the digital download market has DRM, helped in part by Apple’s own iTunes Store having a controlling interest in the market and just happening to be an all DRM establishment, but CDs are DRM free (the Sony rootkit fiasco not withstanding).

If CDs don’t have DRM and are high quality digital files (when compared to lossy formats like AAC, MP3, Ogg, etc.), and the mechanism for transferring those files is readily available to anyone who owns a computer made in the last dozen years, why such a fuss over downloadable content?

DRM not Solely a Record Label Consideration?

One more quick point of interest, and then onto my soapbox to beat my own anti-DRM gong. (No, not drum. I said gong. How particularly annoying of me.)

Independent labels selling music through the iTunes Store aren’t able to opt out of FairPlay DRM. I’ve heard the same stories when it comes to the PlaysForSure DRM music sellers. I would guess this stipulation was a music label demand and not an arbitrary Apple rule. Wouldn’t consumers want to know why their Delirium album download is restriction free, but their U2 album is “protected” when both are downloaded via the same online store?

That, in turn, could cause people to really start to put the pressure on major labels to stop being so restrictive. Just remember how bad the Sony CD copy protection shenanigans worked out for Sony. The whole rootkit angle didn’t help, but I think consumers were particularly incensed because there was no precedence for such protective measures with past CDs. Then again, the rootkit was also a bad mechanism for implementing copy protection.

Any extra incentive to buy an iPod, Zune, Sansa, or other device specifically enabled to play back a single DRM scheme can only be beneficial to those pushing hardware.

I don’t think Microsoft, Apple, and other DRM music sellers and technology providers are completely off the hook for the current digital music situation. In recent years, I figured DRM to be as much a benefit to the companies selling the infected music and devices as to the music labels and/or musicians seeking to “protect” their content from piracy. Any extra incentive to buy an iPod, Zune, Sansa, or other device specifically enabled to play back a single DRM scheme can only be beneficial to those pushing hardware.

Even better for those hardware vendors also controlling the DRM spec and selling the music, they can have the whole pie for themselves. I suppose that reduces the number to Sony, Apple, and Microsoft when referring to companies who can control an entire DRM ecosystem from top to bottom in the US market. (Technically, only Sony really has the ability to control the whole pie, as they also have a music label division, but I think my point still stands for the others. Each has a top to bottom DRM solution from software, hardware, and content, each solution incompatible to the other DRM ecosystems on the market.)

Any possible questionable motivations aside, I believe the DRM discussion needs to be revisited – and revisited as many times as needed until we can do something to repeal this unnecessary burden to the consumer. Who better than an individual like Steve Jobs, who just happens to be the CEO of Apple Inc., one of the leading players in this new marketplace.

Sure, Jobs has a vested interest in the outcome. Yet I think it’s encouraging for such a person to be able to forsake one of the market advantages of his own company to seek a better solution for consumers.


I suppose my feelings on this issue are just plain weird to most people. The point I have tried and will continue to make is that my music purchasing habits would not increase if more music were DRM free. Instead, I would not have to artificially limit my selection of music to only Magnatune, eMusic, or other currently DRM-free avenues.

Perhaps I do want to get a “hit” song from a more mainstream artist. To do so, I don’t want to feel my long term interests have been flushed down the toilet in exchange for the short term benefit of instant gratification.

My standpoint probably seems odd, as I doubt I will significantly increase the amount of money I spend on music if all DRM restrictions were repealed. I still have a very finite reserve when it comes time to allocate for such luxuries. Indeed, there may be a slight uptick, but nothing drastic when an appreciably larger DRM-free catalogue were to become available.

However, even if my expenditure on digital music were to stay the same, the outlets I purchased music from would expand. I think competition between competing digital music retailers could only improve, as they could compete on service, quality, and price. No longer would artificially created DRM requirements and their mutually exclusive incompatibilities be a factor in determining what player or software one would choose to play their legally downloaded music upon.

I even concede that there may still be competing formats, whether they be AAC, WMA, MP3, Ogg Vorbis, FLAC, Apple Lossless, etc. The difference being that adoption would be up to normal licensing and quality concerns and the willingness for anyone to take the necessary course of action to implement the different formats into their hardware, software, and download services.

Nearly 100% Legal Music Library

The other contingent of people who think I am silly to obsess over DRM are those who steal their music anyway. These users have no qualms when it comes to “sharing” any and all music that filters into their usage patterns. Rip, burn, share, and so these free spirits go.

My internal moral compass makes me queasy whenever I have something in my collection of dubious legal status, so I keep my music collection very organized. eMusic (the fabulous purveyor of legal DRM-free MP3s), Magnatune (another great DRM-free site), iTunes Store, songs ripped from my CD collection, podcasts, and even songs freely distributed or sold by artists, record labels, or sites like betterPropaganda all have their own folders.

I’m quite sure that at some point in time a piece of music stored on my computer may have been of dubious legal status, but since I keep my music so incredibly organized by source > artist > album > tracks, I can immediately cure an uneasy stomach with a purge of any possibly pirated content. If I can’t remember the terms behind a specific download and the original source is no longer available, I think nothing of deleting such music. When it comes to my purchased music, I am likewise covered by any allegations of illegal possession as everything is very orderly with differing content never mixing together in the same subfolders.

Even my “protected” music has kept its DRM intact. I make no effort to strip the copy protection from the tracks, but I do not fault people who do so. Why shouldn’t consumers in good faith of fair use be able to put the music they have legally purchased on any personal playback device of their choosing? Not sharing with their friends, family, coworkers, and the Internet, simply enjoying flexible personal use.

Not the Player, but the Content That Matters

I don’t believe that the iPod, Zune, or any other portable player forces vendor lock-in with a particular DRM ecosystem. Clearly, buying the digital content from related DRM fostering marketplaces is the real problem. Yep, that’s you, iTunes Store, Zune Marketplace, and other such copy protection infected digital music retailers. As long as the particular portable player actually plays non-DRM content, the workaround to the DRM issue is inherent in the player – load the device with DRM-free content and forget about the headache.

I have two portable digital audio players, an iAudio G3 and a 4G 20 GB iPod. The former supports Microsoft’s former wonder-tech PlaysForSure, since supplanted in Microsoft’s own products by their new closely integrated Zune platform, and the latter supports Apple’s market leading FairPlay. (Can DRM content really be considered to lead anything?) Yet I have zero PlaysForSure music on the iAudio G3, and only 61 out of 1,474 current music files on my iPod are FairPlay protected AAC files. Out of those 61 tracks, about half were purchased with my own funds, and the other half came from free iTunes promotions. Never mind the 100-150 podcasts floating about my collection, and those are most assuredly DRM free.

Only a handful of my current digital music library are tracks legally ripped from my own CDs, the vast majority being downloads, from eMusic, Magnatune, betterPropaganda, Amazon’s free music, individual artist’s sites, the iTunes Store, and other such completely legal digital music websites. If I were to add more of the music from my CDs to my digital music collection, the unprotected to protected ratio would grow even wider.

To reiterate my main points: I would put forth the notion that consumers use an iPod, not because of some iTunes Store lock-in, but because it’s a slick and cost competitive digital audio player.

…more stringent DRM on digital downloads won’t really make much of a difference.

I do think that increased reliance on the iTunes Store can cause vendor lock-in, as it would for any other provider of DRM content. However, the truth is that people still put stolen music on their iPod, Zune, Rio Carbon, iAudio G3, etc. and more stringent DRM on digital downloads won’t really make much of a difference. More importantly, completely legitimate DRM-free music also makes its way to the various music players, whether from the huge amount of legal CDs in the wild or any of the legal download sites not supporting copy protection schemes.

If a consumer was to keep buying music from the iTS, each purchased track or album would only add to the ever growing cost needed to overcome when switching to another DRM ecosystem. This threshold may vary between individual consumers, but the lock-in threat is present. My investment (thirty dollars or thereabout) isn’t insurmountable, and if I wanted to, I could always use the “rip to CD and then reimport back into iTunes” trick for stripping the DRM. I suppose this is the truth to the anti-DRM argument. DRM is not hack proof; it’s just a hassle for honest consumers to use how they please for their own personal use.

Beyond DRM

With Steve Job’s essay about DRM being harmful to consumers and, believe it or not, Bill Gates’ similar words along the very same lines from two months back, I wonder what Microsoft, Apple, Sony, Real, or any of the other DRM peddlers would do to reimburse past customers if the record companies consented to music sales without DRM.

I would be happy with the simple act of being allowed to download DRM-free versions of all the songs I purchased during the DRM days. I’m sure the people who have invested hundreds or even thousands of dollars into DRM music files would like to upgrade to such free content as well. I would suppose that it would probably be simple to provide an official utility for stripping the DRM, and then whole libraries could be batch processed.

As long as the solution comes from the former DRM providers, there would be no need to worry about possible DMCA violations. And don’t get me started on the DMCA, also know as the other big pain in the butt when it comes to digital copy protection methods.

What About Video?

I suppose we will all get to see in the next six months to a year just how the digital music landscape will change. If all goes well, we can start the process all over again as we tackle DRM with downloadable video, DVDs, and high definition DVDs.

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