Why Steve isn't Going to Upset the DRM Apple Cart
By Jack Schofield (Thursday, February 15 2007)
Apple co-founder Steve Jobs caused a stir this month by publishing Thoughts on Music, a 1,900-word essay on digital rights management (DRM). Apparently he's against it, and so are we. However, there has been a backlash, with people suggesting Jobs start practising what he preaches. At the Inquirer, for example, Charlie Demerjian called Jobs "the lowest form of hypocrite", pointing out that "the Mac, the iPod and the upcoming iPhone all are DRMed to the gills".
Actually, it seems Jobs was simply reacting to pressure from Europe, particularly from Norway, France and Germany. Last summer, Forbrukerradet, Norway's consumer council, lodged a complaint with the Consumer Ombudsman against iTunes Music Store Norge, and last month got a ruling in its favour.
Torgeir Waterhouse of Forbrukerradet told the Outlaw.com website: "FairPlay is an illegal technology whose main purpose is to lock the consumers to the total package provided by Apple by blocking interoperability."
FairPlay, Apple's relatively liberal DRM, prevents people from playing songs they've bought from the iTunes Music Store on other music players, while the iPod cannot play DRM-encumbered songs bought from rival online music stores.
Note: this is not the same as complaining that you can't run a PlayStation 2 title on your Nintendo, because each version of a game has to be created for a specific machine. With music files, the DRM plays no part in the music's or the file's creation: it is simply added later.
There are two separate issues here, as Edgar Bronfman, chief executive of Warner Music Group, was quick to point out: copy protection and interoperability. All four music majors insist on copy protection, which is implemented by DRM. However, they also want interoperability, because they think this would lead to a bigger market and because it might also reduce Apple's power. In particular, they want to vary prices so that some songs are expensive while others are cheap. Jobs won't let them.
There are three obvious ways to achieve both interoperability and DRM. The simplest and quickest is for everyone to adopt the system that dominates the market. But Apple would have to license its proprietary FairPlay DRM to other companies, and it won't.
An alternative would be for everyone to agree on an open industry standard DRM. That isn't likely because it would take a long time to implement, and because everybody wants to make money out of DRM. The third option is for companies to work together on interoperability, so that when songs are transcoded from one format to another, the DRM is preserved. Jobs doesn't even mention this idea.
He specifically rejects licensing FairPlay because he says its secrets will leak out if it's spread around, and it will be hard to patch when many companies use it. But he may be exaggerating. Microsoft's proprietary but openly licensed DRM has been cracked less often than FairPlay, even though it's licensed to dozens of companies. Is Jobs saying Microsoft can do this but Apple can't?
Apple does have a real problem. It is perceived to be operating anti-competitively by some European governments and by some consumer councils. The best solution for consumers and, says Jobs, for Apple, would be for the music majors to abandon DRM altogether. Since I boycott all forms of music DRM, I'd prefer that, too. But until it happens, the pressure on Apple is only likely to get stronger.
Originally appeared in Guardian.