The vow Tuesday by Apple CEO Steve Jobs — that he would willingly remove copyright protection from songs sold at his company’s iTunes store — was cheered by those who’ve been arguing that digital rights management (DRM) systems are a failure.
Advocates for music-sharing freedom said they expect music labels will eventually abandon the practice, but they doubted the movie industry would follow suit by removing DRM from DVDs, HD DVDs and Blu-ray discs.
A Different Playing Field
“When it comes to movies, the DRM is just as pointless when it comes to stopping piracy as it is in music,” Fred von Lohmann, senior intellectual property attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the E-Commerce Times.
However, movie studies are unlikely to loosen their stranglehold even though hackers have already found ways around the supposedly bulletproof copy protection systems on high-definition discs, he added.
There are big differences between the DRM used on movies and the DRM that prevents music downloaded from one online music store from working on a competitor’s device, von Lohmann explained.
Controlling movie player construction, not stopping piracy, is the main issue for Hollywood, he suggested.
“The difference is not the ability to slow down piracy,” said von Lohmann. “The difference is whether the DRM lets you control the piracy platform.
“The DRM on DVDs has been cracked for years, but that hasn’t meant you can go out and build your own DVD player and offer whatever features you like. It stops companies like Panasonic from building DVD players that Hollywood doesn’t like or offering new features Hollywood doesn’t like. That’s why you can’t rip a DVD to your iPod,” he noted.
Beginning of the End
Jobs’ comments are the beginning of the end for music DRM, Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania professor Peter Fader predicted. He also agreed with von Lohmann that ridding the movie industry of DRM will be a tougher battle for file-sharing advocates.
“There are huge differences between movies and music. The thing about music is you listen to the same song over and over and very often. It opens up pathways to buy albums or go to concerts. To me, songs are like trailers for a movie: you want people to see them and share them,” Fader told the E-Commerce Times.
Movies are different, however. They’re the final product, not just one piece of a product (as are songs to an album), “not to even mention all the technical hurdles of downloading and storing them,” he added.
Movies aside, both men said their reactions were positive upon reading Jobs’ “Thoughts on Music” letter on the Apple Web site.
“My first reaction was ‘Amen!'” von Lohmann said. “Obviously, we’ve been saying for years that DRM on music is bad for fans, bad for artists and bad for competition. To hear Steve Jobs echo every one of those things was great.”
As for his second reaction, von Lohmann noted, “I thought this really means DRM on music is headed for the wastebasket.”
A Savvy Business Move
Faber said he was stunned by the business acumen demonstrated through Jobs’ letter.
“I think it’s a brilliant, brilliant move on his part as a pure business decision,” he declared. “Just so smart. And I think it’s a good thing for the industry as well.”
Jobs has nothing to lose, Faber observed. “It’s not like he’s ever been making money selling songs through iTunes, so what does he care if people are putting MP3 files on their machines instead of AAC (advanced audio coding) files? It’s all upside for him.”
In his letter, Jobs said music lovers should urge the world’s four largest labels — Universal Music Group, EMI, Sony BMG Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group — to throw in the towel on DRM restrictions. “Convincing them to license their music to Apple and others DRM-free will create a truly interoperable music marketplace,” Jobs wrote. “Apple will embrace this wholeheartedly.”
The incompatibility with non-iPod players of songs downloaded from Apple’s iTunes store has prompted complaints from consumer rights and protection groups in Europe, which labeled Apple as being anticompetitive.
Jobs said he had no choice because the music companies insisted DRM be implemented.