Steve Jobs To Record Labels: Tear Down This Wall!
I got back from the MPAA conference (I'll have more thoughts on that tomorrow) just in time to read a jaw-dropping essay posted on Apple's Web site. In it, Steve Jobs says that DRM--it stands for "digital rights management" but might better serve as shorthand for "digital rights minimization"--software doesn't and can't work, isn't necessary and should be abandoned by the record labels.
I am used to seeing that argument from the likes of Public Knowledge or the Electronic Frontier Foundation--but not from the company that's the world's most successful vendor of DRM-wrapped downloads.
The essay starts with a retelling of the beginning of the iTunes store, including a new detail about the bargain Apple struck to get the major labels to sell their work online:
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.
(Note: And yet the labels were fine with letting people burn their iTunes songs to audio CD, then re-rip them in an unprotected format. This doesn't quite add up... but the labels, historically speaking, haven't always been the most rational entities when it comes to digital music.)
Jobs says licensing Apple's FairPlay DRM software to other companies wouldn't work, thanks to that escape clause quoted before--it would be too hard to keep the secrets of FairPlay confidential, and quickly and accurately repairing any breaches would become impossible with multiple hardware and software vendors involved.
Enter Plan C:
The third alternative is to abolish DRMs entirely. Imagine a world where every online store sells DRM-free music encoded in open licensable formats. In such a world, any player can play music purchased from any store, and any store can sell music which is playable on all players. This is clearly the best alternative for consumers, and Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat. If the big four music companies would license Apple their music without the requirement that it be protected with a DRM, we would switch to selling only DRM-free music on our iTunes store.
(That raises one question: Why not make DRM optional on iTunes tracks now? There are labels that sell DRMed songs on iTunes but offer the same music without DRM on other sites. Does Apple's original deal forbid that too?)
Anyway, the remainder of the essay notes how that the overwhelming majority of music sold today still comes on CDs without any DRM; ergo, the music industry doesn't need this in the first place. (Evidently, Jobs is overlooking the fraction of them that incorporate some form of copying restrictions, like those infamous Sony BMG "rootkit" CDs).
So if the music companies are selling over 90 percent of their music DRM-free, what benefits do they get from selling the remaining small percentage of their music encumbered with a DRM system? There appear to be none.
This is all perfectly logical stuff, but it's revolutionary material coming from somebody who helped found the personal-computer industry--and who serves on the board of directors of one of the world's biggest entertainment companies.
Jobs just rolled a hand grenade down that boardroom table. I can't wait to see what happens next.
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