Recently, Apple, Inc. CEO Steve Jobs released a statement concerning digital rights management (DRM) in digital audio distribution, supporting a DRM-free solution. Several sites, small and large and including some of the major record labels, have picked up on this, but I’d like to offer a counterpoint to most of what I’ve read on the subject thus far.
Currently, Apple’s industry-leading iTunes Store has a DRM scheme called FairPlay implemented in each item – song, TV show, movie, music video, audiobook, etc. This scheme allows users to play the digital content on quite a liberal number of devices. Circumvention of this technology is but a mere nuisance but technically possible, so there haven’t been any really gratuitous FairPlay disabling schemes necessary. Additionally, everyone and his dog has an iPod, and with fair prices, perhaps more people think, “might as well pay.”
The instant gratification model of iTunes is quite appealing for certain things, and I am pleased with my several iTunes purchases thus far. I have not felt too many ill effects of DRM, as I have not exceeded the max. number of devices. My only foreseeable problems include massive hard drive and backup failures in which all of my purchased bits are forever gone, and this is honestly a potential problem.
But DRM does a few other things. Via iTunes, it empowers smaller labels such as Velour Music, one of my favorites, to publish their entire catalog digitally with much less concern about rampant piracy. They are affected more than large labels in many ways, since their sales, which like the “Big Four” rely on volume, are often considerably smaller in quantity.
It also forces companies such as Apple who are distributing digital content to make decisions on quality that demand meeting a certain standard. Most users of iTunes + iPod probably don’t realize that their purchased music is not in mp3 format but rather a protected advanced audio codec (pAAC) that represents a mature generation of lossy digital audio. Can the average listener really tell the difference between AAC and mp3? Yes, I think they can, since I consistently picked AAC in a double blind listening test some years ago, which prompted me to re-encode over 300 CDs in the new format.
Apple’s decision to use AAC instead of mp3 was based on setting a higher standard for consumers. If DRM was removed, one of two things would have to happen: either other portable digital audio players (DAPs) would have to embrace AAC, or all music would end up in what I consider to be the inferior mp3 format.
Why does the public accept mp3? Because they think they’re listening to it already (at least 2 billion songs downloaded from iTunes are not mp3) and because they don’t care, since mp3 is “good enough.”
But this means that potentially a serious degradation of the quality of distributed music may ensue, with no boundaries remaining uncrossed. Record labels could, if they wanted, distribute music in poor, internet radio quality mp3 or ogg files, and by charging a cheaper price for them, they would gain a consumer base.
This does no justice to the artists or their sound engineers, whose hard work keeps well produced CDs sounding incredible – the way they are supposed to sound. Removal of DRM is yet another bad step in making poor quality recordings widely distributable.
Additionally, a globally DRM-free model would not be good for the consumer due to fragmentation, which we already have to a degree concerning digital distribution. If all of these sites were all of a sudden on equal keel – DRM-free digital music was available, but you had to purchase it from twenty different places, you would have to be a member of twenty different sites, all with slightly different rules and content in a fragmented manner. This is not good for the consumer because it makes it very difficult to find anything.
There still remains the problem concerning exclusivity. Apple’s iTunes Store has the largest digital music catalog, which means that if people want to purchase music, they will have to use iTunes, and if people want to transport their music, they will have to use iPods. Right?
Well, not exactly. Users are welcome to burn a copy of the CD from their iTunes purchases, which is a standard RedBook audio CD format. This CD can then be reimported to whatever format the customer wants, and thus it can be re-encoded into mp3s or oggs or whatever for use on other digital audio players. (As always this activity may be strictly forbidden and all music must be used under the terms and conditions under which it was bought. I do not endorse the misuse and illegal activity blah blah blah something about indemnity here.)
Is this a hassle for the consumer – sounds like it, but why should that concern Apple and Apple’s partners, who have invested a great deal of time and money in creating an environment like iTunes that serves its iPod users very, very well. For those using iTunes + iPod, they have an incredible deal, and DRM only comes up when they want to share the music with someone else quickly. And that’s a problem that even Microsoft has tackled just fine, with their limited sharing capability with their DAP, the Zune.
Thus there are many avenues about which to think when considering the future of digital music, but strangely, I don’t see removal of DRM as a good one. Will DRM always be crack-able? Yes – I believe that to be the nature of locks and lock-picking. But with locks, we don’t simply put revolving doors on our homes just because locks can be picked. Instead we make annoying locks and funny cardboard signs outside on our lawn in order to thwart all but the most determined burglars – but that’s another story entirely.