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Thoughts on Thoughts on Music

Thoughts on Thoughts on Music

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All the cool kids are talking about Thoughts on Music, an open letter posted under Steve Jobs's byline on the Apple Web site.  In it, he claims that iTunes uses DRM because the major music labels demanded it, that it would be really cool for everyone if they weren't forced to use DRM by the major labels, and so the major labels ought to stop demanding it.  I have a few semi-random thoughts.

First of all, "envelope" is not a verb.  The word you're looking for is "envelop," with no "e" at the end.  I expect a company of Apple's stature to get that right in a document with this much visibility.

I believe the claim that it's all the labels' fault - almost.  That's certainly in keeping with the major labels' modus operandi.  However, I'm not sure I can completely absolve Apple from any blame.  Apple stood firm on "no differential pricing," even though the labels wanted that very much too.  I'd have to know things I'll never know about how the negotiations went, in order to know whether Apple could have stood firmer on "no DRM." And the open letter certainly downplays the benefits the DRM actually has for Apple.  Jobs says that only 3% of songs on the average iPod came from iTunes...  but I bet if we drilled deeper into those statistics, it's really more like "2% of iPods contain only songs from iTunes"; those users are locked in in fact even if in theory they could be getting music from some other source.

And the availability of iTunes, with its huge catalog including current major-label music, adds value to an iPod far out of proportion to the actual number of songs one might buy that way.  Even if I only ever buy three or four songs from iTunes, the ability to do that - and have them be exactly the songs I wanted, when I wanted them, with known good data and metadata is a very big win and makes an iPod more attractive than a "Joe's Bargain MP3 Player" that can store and play just as many of the non-DRMed MP3 files I can supply myself from peer-to-peer.  And that iTunes benefit is only available to iPod users, and that iPod feature is only available to iTunes users, and Jobs can't tell me he hasn't made a lot of money from that state of affairs.

There's a mention in there of there being no DRM system for CDs.  That's not entirely true.  It would be more accurate to say that there's no DRM system that really works for CDs.  Really, there can be no DRM system that really works at all; Jobs alludes to this in his discussion of a "cat and mouse game," but doesn't really face the fact that the good guys must always eventually win.

The real difference is that with a system like iPod/iTunes, the DRM-mongers can delude themselves more effectively than with a system like CDs.  Because a CD has to play on CD players, there's not much that can be done to make it uncopyable - if you break the copier, you break many other CD players, because the copier is just like many other CD players.  With iPod/iTunes, you can keep changing both ends in step with each other and you can tell yourself (or your trading partners) that that makes it a lot harder for the good guys.

There's some discussion of the technical facts behind DRM in the open letter, with talk of "secrets" and how the more people you have to share the secrets with, the harder it is to keep them secure.  The technical details are left very vague, and that's reasonable.  It almost comes across as advocating security through obscurity, but I think that's just because of the deliberate vagueness.  I'm sure that Jobs, or his advisors who contributed to that part of the piece, are aware of what's really going on and just didn't go into detail that wouldn't add to their points.  It would have been nicer if they hadn't seemed to leave open the possibility that working DRM might be possible in the first place; they lose face if they admit it doesn't work after they've been selling it for so long, but they'll lose more face the longer they wait before coming clean on that point.  The basic claim, though, that working DRM is harder when it's open, is true - if you believe there are different degrees of impossibility.

My own opposition to DRM is ideological.  I object to DRM because it's DRM, not because it's inconvenient or because of business or economic concerns.  As I've said before, I think that's one reason for the failures of communication that sometimes happen between people like me and people in the music and movie business - I say "No DRM!" and they hear "Yes copying!" Really, I don't care about copying, I care about DRM; that's what the debate is all about for me.  I recognize that for a lot of other people the debate is about other things.  I'm pleased that Steve Jobs and the speechwriters and company behind him are speaking out against DRM. Sure, it's obviously times as a ploy to deflect the Norwegian anti-trust criticism, but so what?  It'd be nice if they were doing it because they agreed with my ideology, instead of for business reasons - but I also think they're right that DRM is bad business too, and if that's what it takes for them to reject DRM, I hope they succeed in their efforts.

UPDATE:  Now we get to see the media machine in action.  EMI has announced, by refusing to comment on the rumours, that they're planning to start selling DRM-free MP3 files.  That looks to me like an attempt to prevent Apple from taking credit for it when it inevitably happens.  And Warner's unfavourable response shows some masterful media manipulation.  They've succeeded in convincing most news outlets to run it under headlines about Warner refusing to provide "free" music (which to the average reader, means music that doesn't cost money), or refusing to "give up copyright protection." What this is actually about is giving up DRM - they'd still get to sell music for money, and have it protected by law, the same as they always have and the same as books, movies, and all other creative material.

But Bronfman manages to frame his demand for absurdly extended privileges, far beyond standard copyright, as being a call for "the same protection as software, film, video games or other intellectual property," and the news outlets are printing that quote just as if it wasn't exactly the opposite of the truth.  He doesn't want the same protections for music as for other media.  He wants absurdly extended privileges far beyond standard copyright, and the anti-DRM side are the ones who want the same protections for music as for other media; but he's won a small victory by getting the debate framed in his choice of terms.  Jobs, similarly, is succeeding in getting his corner of the debate framed in his own choice of terms.  If we want to win this, we're going to need equally competent media technicians in our camp.

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