Opinion: Apple's Copy Protection Isn't Just Bad For Consumers, It's Bad For Business - InformationWeek
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02:32 PM
Cory Doctorow
Cory Doctorow

Opinion: Apple's Copy Protection Isn't Just Bad For Consumers, It's Bad For Business

Apple's copy-protection technology makes media companies into its servants. Other copy-protection technologies, like Blu-Ray and HD-DVD, are just as bad, says Internet activist Cory Doctorow.

It's easy to see how banning reverse-engineering is bad for Apple's customers. The ban creates a monopolistic lock-in that invites bad behavior that would otherwise be checked by competition. Apple has already demonstrated its willingness to abuse its monopoly over iTunes players by shipping "updates" to iTunes that add new restrictions to the songs its customers have already purchased. The business model of buying music on the Internet is that one buys a "license" for certain uses, but the company that supplies the product to you can revoke parts of the license, and there's nothing you can do about it. This is just abuse.

Worse still: Apple's competition-proof music makes switching away from its product expensive for Apple's customers. The world of consumer electronics changes quickly and you'd have to be a fool to believe that no one will ever make a superior portable music player to the iPod. iPods and other walkmans have a low price-point and turn over often -- it's no coincidence that Apple's iPods are made out of materials that scratch if your breathe on them and look like they've been through a rock-tumbler after a couple weeks in your pocket -- which means that you're likely to be in the market for a new one every year or two.

So say that in 2008, Creative finally manages to nail an iPod killer just as you're ready to retire your 2006 iPod Nano. At $180 for the new device, it's a no-brainer to pick one up on your next Amazon run or duty-free trip.

But say you're the kind of iPod user who also buys the occasional iTunes Music Store song. Just one or two a month, maybe 20 a year. If you do that every year from the year the Music Store launched, you'll have 100 tracks by 2008. That's a $99 investment in music that only plays on the iPod/iTunes combo. Creative won't play Apple's music, and if Creative tries to do so, it'll find itself in legal jeopardy under the DMCA, which would give Apple the right to sue Creative for trying.

At 20 tracks a year, you add 50 percent to the cost of switching away from an iPod in five years. In 10 years, you double the cost. And if you buy more than 20 tracks a year -- or splurge for audiobooks, full albums, and other high-ticket iTunes Music Store items -- you'll find yourself in hock for thousands of dollars that you'll flush away if you change vendors.

Sure, you could conceivably burn and rip all that music (except the audiobooks, which will come out mangled into 70-minute chunks) if you want to spend a couple days with your burner, and don't mind retyping all that tedious metadata. The more music you have--the better a customer you've been for the iTunes Music Store--the more onerous this task becomes.

Incidentally, you may have heard that Creative has finally decided to enforce one of its bogus patents against Apple (hierarchical menus on digital music players -- what thicko patent inspector considered that to be "non-obvious to a skilled practitioner of the art?") I'd give long odds that if Creative prevails, it will ask for a license to play iTunes music on its players as part of the settlement.

At the end of the day, though, we customers can always vote with our wallets. That's what many of us have done: P2P file-sharing of infringing music is the fastest-adopted technology in the history of the world. Even loyal iTunes customers are not filling their 10,000-song iPods at $0.99 a track (nor does the average 10,000-song-iPod-owner have a thousand CDs waiting to be ripped at home). Creative Commons-licensed music, public domain music, and other freely shareable content accounts for some of those hard-disk sectors to be sure. But the customer has decided, by and large, to avoid Apple's lock-in by not buying anything at all -- they've joined the majority of Internet users in decided that copyright infringement is your best entertainment dollar.

The music industry doesn't have the option of avoiding commercial decisions. They have to sell music--that's what they're in business for--and that means that they have to go where the distribution channels are. The biggest, most successful, most powerful of those channels is Apple's. Apple has sold more than a billion of the music industry's tracks through that channel, and it controls it from top to bottom.

The industry discovered this the hard way last year when Warner Music's Edgar Bronfman Jr. proposed a differential pricing model for iTunes-- more than $0.99 for front-list titles, discounts for the backlist. I don't like the sound of that much, but the important thing is what Steve Jobs thought of it. He hated the idea. It died.

The CEO of one of the largest music companies in the world went to a mere retailer and asked for the tiniest flexibility in its marketing plans and was all but laughed out of the boardroom. Why not? If Apple doesn't want to give in to Warner's terms, what's Warner going to do? Withdraw its iTunes licenses? Sell exclusively over Rhapsody or Yahoo Music? Lots of luck selling music that won't play on the world's most popular music player.

That's the real irony. The music industry provided the bait to Apple, in the form of the regulatory monopolies it receives over its copyrights. Apple hijacked that monopoly and used it to hook us.

Warner can't authorize Real or Yahoo or Microsoft to break Apple's copy restriction in order to enable its own music to be copied onto a new device. Even though it holds those copyrights, it has lost control over its destiny.

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