Infrastructure // PC & Servers
Commentary
6/4/2007
04:53 PM
David  DeJean
David DeJean
Commentary
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DRM: A Half-Step Forward, More Steps Back

Apple came through on schedule last week and began selling DRM-free music files from EMI. It turns out this isn't a giant leap forward, more like a timid half-step, because they aren't really the clean files you probably hoped for. And far from leading in a seismic shift to respect for users by the music industry, it was a half-step forward that has been mostly obliterated by a massive rush backwards by t

Apple came through on schedule last week and began selling DRM-free music files from EMI. It turns out this isn't a giant leap forward, more like a timid half-step, because they aren't really the clean files you probably hoped for. And far from leading in a seismic shift to respect for users by the music industry, it was a half-step forward that has been mostly obliterated by a massive rush backwards by the industry in recent days. So the entertainment-prevention industry continues its self-destructive course despite Apple's feint toward DRM removal.First, that feint. Apple's new file format is indeed DRM-free -- but what Apple forgot to tell us was that it wouldn't be removing the buyer's name and e-mail address encoded into the file. Ars Technica and TUAW both made that discovery.

Then the Electronic Frontier Foundation discovered that the files contained more than that. It wasn't sure just what, but it found that the file sizes of two versions of the same tune differed by 360K. The article wasn't sure what was in the extra space, but thought it looked like tables of unknown data.

There's no reason to suspect Apple of bad faith -- after all, as long as tunes you download are never lost or stolen, there's no risk -- but one does wonder what use Apple might make of the information. We know that Apple through iTunes is interested in, and capable of, collecting information on the contents of our hard drives.

And we know that files sometimes go astray. Or get hacked. What do you think might happen if a music file containing your name and email address were being downloaded from some illicit file server? "Lawsuit" is the first thing that pops to my mind.

Second, the continued mad march backwards. Ars Technica also reported that the International Confederation of Authors and Composers Societies (CISAC), the trade association of performance-royalty collection agencies, met last week in Brussels to wring its hands and wail that digital technology and file-sharing are eviscerating revenue. And yet, the organization reaffirmed its opposition to the only solution that makes any sense as far as I can see, a compulsory universal license (of exactly the type that CISAC members administer on behalf of their members) for end-users of music.

I won't belabor the argument. You can see an interview with CISAC's director general, Eric Baptiste, in The Register, and a counterpoint from British Telecom CEO Ben Verwaayen in The Hollywood Reporter, which said he "issued a brutal warning to rights owners, telling them that business models that had been sustained for more than a century were coming to an end."

I happen to agree with him. Buggy whips aren't selling at all well these days, and DRM-afflicted music seems to be on the same slippery downward slope. I don't advocate piracy. I do advocate treating people who pay you for things like customers, not like criminals. CISAC stepped back from that possibility last week. No real surprise. One more in a long series of music-industry shots to the collective foot. But Apple, too? Now, that was a surprise. One it needs to fix, quickly and publicly.

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