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Apple and the death of DRM

Digital Rights Management systems, better and more infamously known as DRM are software and / or hardware mechanisms designed to limit the usage of certain digital media. That’s a summary that most would agree with completely. It’s worth then dwelling on this point, because at no point did I mention that DRM is a mechanism used to prevent or stymie piracy. After all, that’s not what DRM is all about, right? Wrong.

I’ve just read through a very timely press release by Apple regarding their collective thoughts on music, which is clearly designed for three audiences.

On the one hand, it’s written in very plain and accessible English, free of assumptions about what the reader might or might not know about DRM, or their technical literacy.

Secondly, it’s pitched as an attempt to broker some kind of dialogue with the “big four” music labels: Universal, Sony BMG, Warner and EMI.

And lastly, it’s a letter that is an attempt to clarify and then focus the minds of the Norwegian government who seem intent on laying the blame at the front door of Apple for how iTunes plus iPod equals digital lock-in, which they don’t:

“Today’s most popular iPod holds 1000 songs, and research tells us that the average iPod is nearly full. This means that only 22 out of 1000 songs, or under 3% of the music on the average iPod, is purchased from the iTunes store and protected with a DRM. The remaining 97% of the music is unprotected and playable on any player that can play the open formats. Its hard to believe that just 3% of the music on the average iPod is enough to lock users into buying only iPods in the future. And since 97% of the music on the average iPod was not purchased from the iTunes store, iPod users are clearly not locked into the iTunes store to acquire their music.”

However, the Norwegian government clearly do not understand the issue at hand and simply can’t grasp that there is absolutely nothing that Apple can do to resolve this issue:

“Firstly we’re very happy he’s come out and made a statement, it shows they’re taking this issue seriously. But secondly we see it as a strategic move to shift the issue to the record labels. iTunes is the record store which sells music to Norwegian consumers as such they have to follow Norwegian law. It’s not good enough to say they have problems with suppliers and their hands are tied.”

Which is bizarre to say the least.

This isn’t just some client-supplier arrangement. We’re talking about media moguls that have political standing and weight behind them, and having no compunction is using their power, judiciously or otherwise.

So clearly the latter argument to the governmental audience in Norway obviously needs some more attention.

There’s also mention of what Apple think about their own FairPlay DRM technology and the recent albeit on-going discussion regarding Apple opening the technology up, which I myself have commented on:

“The second alternative is for Apple to license its FairPlay DRM technology to current and future competitors with the goal of achieving interoperability between different company’s players and music stores. On the surface, this seems like a good idea since it might offer customers increased choice now and in the future. And Apple might benefit by charging a small licensing fee for its FairPlay DRM. However, when we look a bit deeper, problems begin to emerge. The most serious problem is that licensing a DRM involves disclosing some of its secrets to many people in many companies, and history tells us that inevitably these secrets will leak. The Internet has made such leaks far more damaging, since a single leak can be spread worldwide in less than a minute. Such leaks can rapidly result in software programs available as free downloads on the Internet which will disable the DRM protection so that formerly protected songs can be played on unauthorized players.”

As for the dialogue with the labels, it’s unclear what their thoughts are at this point. While some consideration has previously been made towards scrapping DRM, it’s important to know what DRM is there for:

“In 2006, under 2 billion DRM-protected songs were sold worldwide by online stores, while over 20 billion songs were sold completely DRM-free and unprotected on CDs by the music companies themselves. The music companies sell the vast majority of their music DRM-free, and show no signs of changing this behavior, since the overwhelming majority of their revenues depend on selling CDs which must play in CD players that support no DRM system.

So if the music companies are selling over 90 percent of their music DRM-free, what benefits do they get from selling the remaining small percentage of their music encumbered with a DRM system? There appear to be none.”

For now, yes. But what about in the future?

And that’s what makes this curio of an observation seem entirely reasonable in the here & now, but absurd, verging on laughable in the near future if DRM continues unhindered.

Call it an experiment. Call it a dry run. Call it what you will, but make no mistake, DRM is less about limiting the opportunities for the illegal distribution of music & movies and more about limiting what we can do with the stuff we’ve bought in the first place.

Right now, there are any number of devices that can transmit, broadcast, collate, sort, manage and play digital music and movies. How many might there be in 5 or 10 years time? This is what the music labels and the movie studios fear more than anything else.

As for the first audience, well, the press release makes for interesting reading, but unless the labels bite down and take one for the lads and the Norwegians manage to find their arses with both hands, this isn’t the kind of song I want to be seen dancing to…

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By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

2 replies on “Apple and the death of DRM”

I have no issues with DRM as I’m as committed to Apple and its products as anyone can be. I’m no fanboy — I won’t argue for or against Macs or PCs usually — but I know what I like and, let’s face it, Apple are (at the moment at least) one of a kind.

My only issue with the iTunes Store that has stopped me buying more music from it is the quality: 128Kbps isn’t good enough for me — I need 192 or higher to be happy.

Hi Tim and sorry for not getting back earlier.

Yes, I agree. For me, FairPlay doesn’t get in the way of what I’m doing, which is listening to my music.

And I also agree with the relatively low quality.

In both instances, I suspect it’s the labels who’re the impasse on these and many other issues…

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