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  • 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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