07 February 2007

Well, Well, Well...(or, Steve Jobs comes out)

So, Steve Jobs (or probably one of his minions) has written a 2000 word essay articulating why we have DRM (clue: it's not Apple's requirement), and why it would embrace DRM-free music. If you've read this blog (and of course countless other intelligent sites), or you're just a rational technology follower, you will understand exactly what he is saying. Here are a few of the articles I've posted on this subject:

Link to FT article on EU/Norway anti-Apple stance
Apple's French problem with Fairplay
A discussion about interoperable DRM
More on France and DRM
DRM and digital music sales
(sidenote: an article written about a report on digital music sales stalling, which was not true; interestingly the same story was repeated later in the year after Forrester came up with some bizarre stats that also were just not correct)
One of Apple's challenges for 2006
I list DRM as one of the top 5 things to watch for in 2006
(ok, well, it's just 2007, but it WAS a hot topic in 2006 as well)

I have generally argued that Apple has had its hands tied with DRM; that, in general, it does not cause major restrictions to its users (certainly better rights than other ecosystems), and that it needs to succeed much further if it is to threaten a world in which Microsoft will inevitably take control, leading to far worse consequences to the consumer. I have also argued that certain EU countries are completely misguided in taking action against Apple.

Where I have been wrong is that I have for the most part assumed DRM was here to stay. While some commentators have felt it might be on the way out, I could not see that. What Steve's essay does above all, is to show that this suddenly seems plausible.

Of course, there will be conspiracy theorists out there (I've already seen a few comments from them). "Jobs is lying"; "why doesn't he sell non-drm music from the indie labels"; "his stats are wrong because I've bought x number of songs" where x is a number from zero to much higher than Steve's average figure! We'll no doubt see some industry bigwigs come into the debate with some point about Apple being disingenuous, and it's not THEIR fault after all.

Some might argue that this essay is somewhat defensive by Apple at a time it is under threat. It is also possible to argue that EU action has caused Apple to do this, so that is a good thing. But those are cynical views. Apple has done this at a time when it is still in the ascendancy in digital music, not when it is on a slippery slope downwards (this also shows Steve has learned the lesson of the Mac). And, if the EU had instead gone after the monopolistic labels, they could have forced this solution more directly and quickly, without causing confusion in the consumer base.

However, while I welcome this essay, the clarity it provides on why DRM is here, what Apple's contractual obligations are and its suggested remedies, one part of me worries that while we may end up with DRM-free music, there are two questions unanswered. The first is whether as a result, we will get a choice of formats so that more efficient open formats are offered (such as AAC rather than just MP3). More importantly, to an audiophile at least, is whether the solution will encompass digital offerings that are at least if not better than CD-quality (eg lossless, or even enhanced lossless), and if so, that they do not cost ridiculous amounts of money. My worry is that the industry will settle on a lowest-common-denominator solution (or a number of solutions around that level). Given a choice between (fair) DRM'd music in true audiophile quality and DRM-free music in lower quality, I might be in a small minority, but I would prefer the former.

Finally, it should also be pointed out that the essay makes no mention about DRM and video material, and indeed some of the arguments made for making music DRM-free would not apply to movies or tv shows. But, make no mistake this is still a BIG story with far-reaching consequences.

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Anonymous said...

The reason of Microsoft's reaction (from the Zune guy) is that DRM-free music will render all the DRM work Microsoft has done with "the industry" worthless. Micsosoft will lose control over this aspect.

The RIIA's only raison d'ĂȘtre is to perpetuate their current business model and control over music distribution. That is why they'd never let DRM-free music be sold online. Therefore their only goal will now to force Apple to license Fairplay.

Apple is playing a tough game against the RIIA (mainly the Big Four club). Let us hope they get support from govs and consumers. So far these are playing into RIIA hands.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure iTunes would shift to selling AAC music. AAC without DRM is an open standard and already accepted by most other music players.

I checked my music library just for fun. About 25% of my music was purchased at the iTunes store.

I think Steve is bringing this up now both due to the European attacks and because of the attacks on Vista's bizarre video security features. Those features have already started an anti-Vista backlash and I do not think Steve wants to have the same thing happen to Leopard.

I think he will delay hooking up Blu-Ray or HD DVD drives to Macs instead of agree to those very odd content protection requirements.


Anonymous said...

This puts pressure a lot of pressure on Norway to rein in their anti-consumer suit against Apple.

Unknown said...

I thought that most other players did not accept AAC despite it being an open standard. I know that Zune does and SonyEricsson phones do, but AFAICT players from Sansa, Creative and iriver, to name but three, do not work with AAC. It's crazy when you consider that this is iTunes default ripping format, these companies are not making it easy for people to even consider anything other than the iPod.

I too wondered about the indie labels not requiring DRM. I find it hard to believe that Apple could not have implemented no-DRM for these tracks alongside the Fairplay-protected ones. Maybe it was just easier to protect everything.

Finally, I also checked my iTunes library: only 2.2% purchased at the iTunes Store. But then, I do have a lot of CDs...

Unknown said...

And another thing. If you want to see what a non-DRM music store is like, may I recommend that you do not try wippit.com's subscription service. A fine idea in principal - music is supplied as 192kbps MP3s, unprotected of course - providing you don't actually want to download anything.

It really is an absolute dog of a site to use. I've had stuff waiting to be downloaded for weeks that I cannot get (downloads fail partway through and then the whole site becomes unavailable), and they don't answer emails.


If people such as the Norwegian government think that this kind of thing is the answer to the supposed closed and restrictive iTunes Store, then I am glad that I am not Norwegian