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.

When it comes to anti-copying technology, there are two possible outcomes: either you have a popular single-vendor system that's bad for the industry and general public, or you have a multivendor system that's bad for the industry and general public.

Apple Computer's iTunes is hailed as the first really "balanced" copy-restriction system. Unlike the copy restrictions built into failed systems from the likes of Sony, Toshiba, and Microsoft, the anti-copying/anti-use stuff in iTunes doesn't seem to have deterred the public from buying iTunes music and the iPods that play it. Indeed, more than a billion iTunes have been sold around the world. That only amounts to a couple CDs' worth of tracks on every iPod, but still, that's not bad, especially in a field where the big success stories to date have been digital music stores that managed to go out of business without costing their backers too much.

Steve Jobs and Apple managed to lure the music industry into licensing the copyrights for the iTunes Music Store even though the Store's use-restrictions are comparatively mild. There's a bit of region-coding--you pay a per-download charge based on the country your credit-card is billed to. There's a bit of multiuse restriction -- only five CPUs can be registered to a given iTunes account at a time. There are some miscellaneous restrictions, including ones that are genuinely bizarre, like limiting the number of times you can burn a given playlist.

Removing iTunes' DRM is pretty straightforward. It's time-consuming, but it's not too difficult. You just have to burn a CD with the tracks, re-rip the CD tracks as MP3s, and re-enter the metadata, like title and artist. This doesn't work as well for the expensive audiobooks Apple sells, which generally come in chunks too large to fit on a CD.

So far, so good. The iPod is the number one music player in the world. iTunes is the No. 1 digital music store in the world. Customers don't seem to care if there are restrictions on the media Steve Jobs sells them -- though you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who values those restrictions. No Apple customer woke up this morning wishing for a way to do less with her music.

But there's one restriction that's so obvious it never gets mentioned. This restriction does a lot of harm to Apple's suppliers in the music industry.

That obvious restriction: No one but Apple is allowed to make players for iTunes Music Store songs, and no one but Apple can sell you proprietary file-format music that will play on the iPod.

In some respects, that's not too different from other proprietary platforms, of course. No one but Microsoft makes Word. But there's a huge difference between Word and iTunes: Word is protected only by market forces, while iTunes enjoys the protection of a corrupt law that gives Apple the right to exclude competitors from the market.

iTunes is protected by the anti-circumvention provisions in the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), itself a law passed to comply with the 1996 UN World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) "Internet Treaties." The DMCA makes it a crime to circumvent "effective means of access control." That means that breaking the locks off a digital work is illegal, even if you're breaking the lock to accomplish a legal end.

It's otherwise legal to back up a DVD, or put a song on a home media-server, or quote an ebook in a college essay. But if you have to break through some copy-restriction technology to do this, you're breaking the law.

It doesn't even matter if you're the creator of the work the lock controls! You can't even access your own work on your own terms if you need to break a lock to do it.

The DMCA makes the kind of reverse-engineering that's commonplace in most industries illegal in copyright works. For example, in the software industry, it's legal to reverse-engineer a file-format in order to make a competing product. The reason: The government and the courts created copyright to provide an incentive to creativity, not to create opportunities to exclude competitors from the marketplace.

Reverse engineering is a common practice in most industries. You can reverse-engineer a blender and make your own blades, you can reverse-engineer a car and make your own muffler, and you can reverse-engineer a document and make a compatible reader. Apple loves to reverse-engineer -- from Keynote to TextEdit to Mail.app, Apple loves reverse-engineering its competitors' products and making its own competing products.

But the iTunes/iPod product line is off-limits to this kind of reverse-engineering. No one but Apple can authorize an iTunes/iPod competitor, and Apple's not exactly enthusiastic about such authorization --the one major effort to date was the stillborn Motorola ROKR phone, which was so crippled by ridiculous Apple-driven restrictions that it barely made a ripple as it sank to the bottom of the cesspool of failed electronics.

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