The most interesting Mac news today is from no less than Steve Jobs himself, author of an extraordinary short essay about the state of DRM in the music industry. It’s extraordinary not just because of what he says, but also the mere fact that he’s saying it this way. He must really have wanted to get this off his chest.
In the essay, Steve reveals some surprising details:
However, a key provision of our agreements with the music companies is that if our DRM system is compromised and their music becomes playable on unauthorized devices, we have only a small number of weeks to fix the problem or they can withdraw their entire music catalog from our iTunes store.
He’s also refreshingly candid about the nature of the DRM business:
The problem, of course, is that there are many smart people in the world, some with a lot of time on their hands, who love to discover such secrets and publish a way for everyone to get free (and stolen) music. They are often successful in doing just that, so any company trying to protect content using a DRM must frequently update it with new and harder to discover secrets. It is a cat-and-mouse game.
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.
Finally, Jobs makes his point, and it’s the simple truth:
Though the big four music companies require that all their music sold online be protected with DRMs, these same music companies continue to sell billions of CDs a year which contain completely unprotected music. That’s right! No DRM system was ever developed for the CD, so all the music distributed on CDs can be easily uploaded to the Internet, then (illegally) downloaded and played on any computer or player.
Apple doesn’t care about DRM. Apple sees no benefit in it. If the the big four music companies could collectively see the light and agree to sell downloadable music DRM-free, just as they sell music on CDs -
Apple will embrace this wholeheartedly.
What’s Steve telling us with this open letter? Several things, I think:
- He’s really annoyed with the music industry right now
- He’s fed up with people moaning about iTS DRM - it’s only there because the stupid industry insisted on it. He’s tired of having to defend something he thinks is a waste of time
- He wanted to say this now, to get it out in the open and get the discussion started. It couldn’t wait until the next keynote
Further comment on this:
If Apple is serious about wanting to sell unprotected music, then I’d be interested in know why it’s not doing so for bands and albums that have already answered Jobs’ request in the affirmative.
But Jobs thinks this is unfair: customers are served well in the current market, by competing manufacturers, each with their own “top-to-bottom” proprietary systems, he argues.
So, his argument goes, Apple must keep FairPlay as an Apple-only solution in order to meet its obligations to the labels.
Why does the music industry fear DRM-free downloads? They fear file-sharing, of course–piracy. But that’s silly, because piracy is well-established by this point; we’ve had almost a solid decade of high-volume media piracy. The vast majority of the songs that you can find on iTunes and the other services are available through file-sharing networks, if you know where to look. And for every pirate site or technology that’s destroyed by a phalanx of intellectual-property lawyers, two more sprout up in its place.
And my two cents? If songs from the iTunes Store were free of DRM, I’d suddenly become a willing, loyal and frequent customer. Until that day, I’m still buying CDs, and wishing they didn’t take up quite so much space.