Saturday, February 17, 2007

DRM Sucks - But We Already Knew That

If you're any kind of computer user, you probably know a thing or two about digital music. Specifically, you know that almost any song you buy online from one of the "major" retailers will come wrapped in Digital Rights Management (DRM) software, which is just a fancy way of saying "restrictions". And since you know this, you probably shy away from making many (if any) online music purchases. Simply put, DRM sucks, and everyone knows that. Apparently, this includes Steve Jobs.

About two weeks ago, Apple CEO Steve Jobs posted a letter online describing why his iTunes store sells files with DRM, and what he really thinks about it (read it here). In short, he says that the evil record companies forced him to implement DRM. Without it, the iTunes store wouldn't exist. But, he goes on to say that he would rather live in a world without DRM.

Let's take a look at all this. First, he's correct about the record companies - they do force just about all online music retailers to implement some type of DRM (and yes, they are evil - though that's a bit of editorializing). So, iTunes would not be the most successful online music store if they didn't use DRM. That being the case, why is Jobs looking to ditch it?

There's been a fair amount of consumer backlash regarding DRM over the years, and it finally seems to be coming to a head. Now that the "newness" factor of digital downloads has worn off, people are coming to realize that they're paying nearly the same amount of money for an inferior product that can't be used in all situations. Why would anyone waste money on that?

So are we to believe that Steve Jobs is putting the consumer first? In a word, no. Don't misunderstand - it's great that someone in his position is speaking up, since in the end it will benefit the consumer one way or another. But we need to look at the facts here. Despite iTunes being the most successful music store online, it was only created to popularize the iPod. Mission accomplished. Also, despite having sold millions of songs, the iTunes store earns Apple little to no money. And removing DRM would probably make that profit margin even worse, since the studios would demand more compensation for selling unrestricted music.

All this begs the question - what is Jobs doing? My guess is that he's looking to dump the music store altogether, since that segment is basically locked up by Apple. Once the iPod can play songs purchased from other online music retailers, there's no need to continue the business. Apple can then focus on their next conquest, video. You'll notice that Jobs only spoke out about the DRM in music. He said nothing about video, which tends to have even stricter DRM attached to it. Why leave that out, unless they plan to continue with that business model?

Honestly, the whole thing is a little strange. But as I said, one way or another this will be good for the consumer in the long run. Case in point - word has already leaked that some major music labels are considering doing away with DRM, either in part or completely, sometime this year. Of course, all this comes on the heels of Microsoft releasing its new PlayReady DRM system, so who really knows what's going on.

The digital music landscape is ripe for a change, and this may be just what the doctor ordered. Let's hope that the labels are finally put in their place, and are reminded that we are customers - not criminals.

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