The Apple Music Report: Are You Ready to Live Without DRM?

February 14th, 2007

As digital rights management schemes go, it’s a sure thing that FairPlay, the one used at the iTunes store, isn’t terribly intrusive. You are authorized to use up to five Macs and/or PCs (doesn’t matter what combination), and copy it to an unlimited number of iPods, more or less. The fine distinctions really don’t matter, though, because most of you aren’t apt to hit a brick wall with such limits in the normal course of events.

So, other than European governments and some tech pundits, there probably hasn’t been a whole lot of clamoring for something better, such as the ability to buy songs from any legal online reseller, and download them to your iPod. Or perhaps use a different music player at the iTunes store.

After saying that he’d drop DRM “in a heartbeat,” some people wonder whether Steve Jobs is just being self-serving or if he, a member of the counterculture in his youth, really feels that way.

Predictably, the music companies have mostly scoffed at such an outlandish concept. Mostly, because EMI Music might be willing to go along with unfettered music files, at least to a limited degree.

Sure, iTunes has been terribly successful, witness sales of two billion songs, and it ranks as a top-tier retailer. But legal downloading hasn’t halted the slide in music sales. The big four claim that billions of songs are still downloaded illegally, and they haven’t had any solutions other than to direct the RIAA to sue as many individuals as possible — including grandmothers and grandfathers — in the hope they’ll somehow stem the tide.

Fat chance!

Now, to be perfectly fair, it’s quite possible to strip the DRM from any iTunes song. You just have to burn it to a CD, and then rip it back into iTunes. The problem is that when you deal with compressed content, each encoding operation compresses it further, so sound quality suffers. Maybe not a whole lot, but some of you already find MP3 and AAC files, of the type available from the online music retailers, to be lacking in the fine details of sonic accuracy.

But will Steve Jobs really be able to slay the DRM bandit during the next round of contract negotiations with the major music labels?

Well, there will be plenty of posturing on both sides, and maybe it’ll seem similar to a WWF match between champions. In the end, though, Steve has plenty of clout in the industry, and one hopes he’ll even have a thick envelope of spreadsheets and even a Keynote presentation to buttress his point of view.

The main issue, of course, is whether the music companies actually lose money because of their DRM schemes. Would they sell more music if it was marketed unfettered, just like CDs — or at least those CDs that don’t have their own misbegotten anti-copying hacks?

Imagine, if you will, music that can be purchased from any music store you want, and which can play on virtually any music player that supports the standard MP3 and AAC formats. A dream come true?

Now, of course there would probably be some sort of uniform standard, so each music store can sell precisely the same product, whether it’s The Beatles or Celene Dion.

Maybe — just maybe — there will be yet another advantage. Would you be willing to pay fifty cents extra for a high-resolution version of a song, one that is audibly indistinguishable from a CD? In an era where we value convenience above quality, probably 95% of you wouldn’t care about such luxuries, for then you’d just buy the CD anyway.

And now, as millions await the arrival of The Beatles at the iTunes store and elsewhere, with newly-mastered versions of their classic 13 albums, you can bet that sales will go through the roof. At the same time, there’s always a slim hope that the music companies will value logic above all else and ditch DRM for good. But whoever said the entertainment industry was logical?

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4 Responses to “The Apple Music Report: Are You Ready to Live Without DRM?”

  1. shane says:

    The Beatles are not iTunes exclusive. DRM in music really is no issue as 99% of mine is off my CD’s
    The DRM I am more concerned about is the DRM that is suppose to be deeply imbedded into the core of Vista and for all content.

  2. Tim Harness says:

    The labels are hurting themselves in another way, my G4 mini can’t read “Copy-protected “disks. When I’m shopping for music I look for the Compact Disk logo, since iTunes is my main music source at home.

  3. Ian says:

    The reasons I buy CDs any more are for the higher quality, the liner notes and the flexibility to import them into different formats. And sometimes I just like to hold the case in my hands while I listen to the CD.
    The only way I’d pay more for the tracks on iTunes music store is if they were 24-bit audio in a loss-less format. That or Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound music. The reason I don’t think CD quality music from iTunes Music Store should cost more is because often I can find the physical CD for the same price or cheaper than the iTunes version. I can be flexible in the file format I want it in without having to re-import the CD. Bring it in as a loss-less format and you can convert an unprotected track into any other format from there. (I have a project to do of converting a bunch of bought music from iTunes into MP3 format for a car CD player. I’ll end up wasting audio CDs just to import them as MP3.)


  4. Blinx says:

    Almost by definition, an iTS customer buying tunes at 128kbps AAC is not a pirate – he’s a payer. So FairPlay imposes DRM on payers, while pirates, who are payers only under exceptional circumstances – someone has to rip a CD in the first place to share it – go unfettered. Where’s the friggin’ logic in that!?

    Now the dirty little secret: In the free Napster era, sales of CDs were booming while the music industry were slamming the beads of their abaci up-and-down, calculating how many billions they were losing. So they shut down free Napster – and did CDs sales take off? Nope. They’ve been on a slide ever since. You’d think there’s a lesson there: free music stimulates demand, and while piracy is morally questionable, it doesn’t reduce overall sales of CDs; it increases it! For some, it’s too counterintuitive to wrap their brains around the concept, but it might just be the case!

    Whether you agree with the above or not, it doesn’t matter. DRM on “payers” is like shutting the barn door after some of your horses have bolted. The ones that stayed in must suffer a loss of light; the one’s that’ve gone are not encouraged to return.

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