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For six years, the Internet Nexus served as my technology blog, but I've since started blogging at the SuperSite Blog instead. If you're looking for the blog, please head there. --Paul

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Another View on Apple’s International iTunes Controversy

Business Week states the obvious:
The revolt by European regulators against Apple’s digital rights management (DRM) technology that protects music tracks from copyright infringement —and restricts iTunes interoperability with all digital music players—is wrongheaded. Pro or con?
One area where FairPlay fails is interoperability, which is the complaint of regulators in several European countries. FairPlay songs can play only on iPods, within Apple’s iTunes software on a Mac or PC, or on CDs governed by the rules cited above. But they can’t be played on other portable players. French lawmakers tried to force interoperability on Apple, but now the call is growing to forgo using DRM entirely.

A universally compatible DRM system created as a result of industry innovation, coupled with selective yet rigorous copyright enforcement actions, is the only true solution that is fair to all parties.
It's wrong for governments to force any kind of change on the industry. The digital music market is young, and the companies playing in it need to find their own solutions.

Most consumers have honorable intentions and won’t run afoul of copyright laws in the course of normal use of the music they’ve bought. And those who intend to act as conduits for digital piracy can already do so by buying a CD or recirculating copies of already-pirated tracks. If anything, the recording studios and artists have more to gain by dropping their DRM requirements than they have to lose.
A surprisingly disappointing comparison, and it appears that both the "pro" and "con" arguments were written by the same person. More problematic, no verdict is delivered. So let's arrive at one.

I think it's fair to say that no one "likes" DRM. It's also equally fair to say that no major content creators (music, TV, movie, books, whatever) would release digital versions of their wares without DRM, because of piracy fears. Working within the reality of this constraint, I've always felt that the "best" (i.e. least restrictive) DRM scheme would win in an open market, but that's not what's happened: FairPlay is restricted only to iTunes and the iPod and shuts out competition. Curiously, Microsoft's more open system, which involves vast numbers of hardware makers and service providers, has fallen by the wayside. That's the reason we're having this debate now: Apple has essentially won the DRM wars, for now at least, and its dominant position is causing interoperability concerns, as it should.

It's also worth noting that DRM does make some interesting scenarios possible, including subscription services. No, subscription services haven't taken off in a big way, but I bet they would if you could get such a thing on the iPod. However, FairPlay isn't sophisticated enough to support such a thing (which Steve Jobs essentially admitted in his recent manifesto). So Though FairPlay has won" in the market, it's not the "best" DRM out there right now. All of the issues that Jobs complained about regarding interoperable DRM were actually solved already by Microsoft. (And yes, I know that Microsoft has gone an Apple-like route with the Zune. Duh. That's what happens when the market speaks. Apple users, of all people, should be familiar with the fact that the best technology isn't always the best-selling technology.)

So how do we fix all this? By simply doing that one thing I've been pushing for since FairPlay first reared its ugly head: Open up the iPod so that it works with other services, and open up iTunes so that it works with other devices. The "how" of this process is completely uninteresting to the consumers who will benefit from this move. That it will just work is really all anyone is asking for. I want a choice of music, TV, and movie services. And I want a choice of devices. Today, I'd pick Apple for much of that. In a truly competitive marketplace, however, that would be a choice and not a requirement. The needs of individuals should always trump the needs of corporations, and that can easily happen within the confines of the law, common sense, and the reality of the marketplace.

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