Recently Steven Jobs, the Chief Executive at Apple stunned the music industry when he urged them in an open letter on the Apple site to rethink their most fundamental antipiracy scheme. The music industry was shocked because until now, Apple has been one of the biggest supporters of digital rights management (DRM) through the music that is sold on Apple's iTunes music store. DRM means that every song purchased on the iTunes site comes with restrictions that "manage" how, when and where users can listen to the songs they purchase.
Now Jobs is calling for a new model in which songs would be bought and sold without these DRM constraints and it's causing quite a stir. As parents of young people who consume all kinds of downloaded music and who are still the targets of suits by the Recording Industry of America Association (RIAA), you should know what the DRM debate is all about and what the alternatives are.
So why is Jobs changing his tune?
Apple's iTunes store is under pressure from European governments like Norway to remove DRM technology so songs bought from the store can be played not just on iPods, but also on players from rival companies. Consumers - especially young people used to using peer-to-peer music sharing sites - have also complained that they should be able to do what they want with the music they purchase. (Curious about the iTunes restrictions? See Know your rights to rock.)
So what's the fuss about DRM?
You and your kids as well as millions of other consumers have the ability to make copies of music and videos and distribute them for free over broadband connections in a matter of minutes or hours. Without restrictions on copying, music and movie industry folks say they could be put out of business.
The other big problem is there is no one single, worldwide DRM standard that works on every device and download service. Right now, music purchased from the Apple iTunes store can be played on any combination of five iPods or computers, but not on any other kind of music players. This becomes a big problem when you lose or retire one of your legitimate devices. More cumbersome, under some DRM schemes, are time limits. For example, you may only be able to view a downloaded movie for 24 hours after the first time you play it. Downloading from various services can also be confusing and be buggy using different browsers and operating systems. This is a huge step backwards from the world of CDs or DVDs, where you just bought the music or the movie and played it on any stereo, DVD player, PC or car system and enjoyed it as many times as you like.
Sounds like the music and movie people don't trust consumers?
They don't and perhaps with some good reason (although a lot of blogs and columns have appeared recently saying that part of the reason is that the music is so bad these days that no one wants it). Far more music is downloaded every day online from illegal peer-to-peer networks than from iTunes or another legitimate service. While the music and movie industry feel that consumers are entitled to fair use of their products, they don't think that people have an absolute right to do whatever they want with their products once the money changes hands. Many providers are experimenting with pricing models that would charge a consumer based on intended usage, with some paying more for unlimited use or for use, say, in a school production. That would help a lot in getting permission to use music that is copyrighted.
What's the point of DRM anyway? Haven't most of the DRM schemes been cracked by hackers anyway?
As Jobs talks about in his commentary, all software can be cracked. Music labels now seem to realize that a lack of a standardized DRM is hurting business. But while DRM has not stopped rampant piracy, it has helped to slow it down. Let's face it, no one knows what a world without DRM would be like. Everybody loves free stuff, but the lost revenue could put some providers of music and movies out of business as well as cut the amount of money available to help market new groups and independent movie productions. There are new DRM schemes being tested including ad-supported revenue and pay-per-view models, but DRM seems a necessary evil until new models are in place and don't let your kids tell you otherwise. Free is not the new paid just yet.
Are there any other alternatives being used?
The leading alternative at the moment is electronic watermarking, which allows content to get played anywhere but permits copies to be tracked to their source. It would be harder on content providers to check where unlimited copying or possible copyright infringements are coming from, but it would create more choice for honest consumers.
Where can we learn more about music downloading and fair use issues?Take a look at the Internet Smarts section of this site.