Apple's Copy Protection Isn't The Problem

Apple's DRM has benefited the public and the music industry. It

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

July 28, 2006

4 Min Read

Cory Doctorow, noted sci-fi writer and Boing Boing editor, marshals a strong argument against digital rights management in InformationWeek. But his assertion that there's no good DRM oversimplifies an issue that's best framed in compromises rather than absolutes.

Apple's DRM has benefited the public and the music industry. It was Apple's technology platform that convinced the music industry to sell music and videos online. The iPod and its FairPlay DRM created a legal digital music market where none had existed before. While the iPod ecosystem isn't without its problems, it's clear that Apple and its DRM have done some good.Doctorow seems unwilling to concede that point in noting that FairPlay was hailed as "balanced." His use of quotation marks is consistent with his apparent position that no DRM is good. Still, he differentiates FairPlay from more restrictive systems backed by Sony, Toshiba, and Microsoft and grudgingly gives iTunes credit for winning over consumers. He even acknowledges that FairPlay can be circumvented:

Removing iTunes's DRM is pretty straightforward. It's time-consuming, but it's not too difficult.

How bad can Apple's DRM really be if it can be removed with relative ease? The answer is not very.

Like Doctorow, I dislike DRM. In fact, I own an iPod, and all but two of the files on it are DRM-free MP3 files that I loaded from my collection of CDs. I've never purchased a song from the iTunes Music Store, and I don't plan to.

I don't like DRM, but I can tolerate it as long as it's optional. Really, a better term for Apple's FairPlay would be DCD--digital copy deterrence--but the world hardly needs another acronym.

It's at this point in his essay that Doctorow shifts gears:

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.

I disagree that Word is protected solely by market forces, but that's another debate. As for iTunes being protected by a corrupt law, that's accurate. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which prevents competitors from reverse-engineering the iPod and iTunes Music Store for interoperability, is a dismal, anti-capitalist, anti-consumer law.

The DMCA is the real object of Doctorow's scorn and justly so. DRM isn't really a problem because in the increasingly networked world, market forces work against it. Sooner or later, customers and competitors will force a more open environment. Just look at what's happening with Microsoft (finally), thanks to Google and open-source software.

The problem is when laws like the DMCA hobble market forces.

Apple isn't entirely to blame. All companies seek barriers to entry to fend off competition and sustain profit margins. Apple has been able to make relatively little headway against Microsoft Windows because Microsoft has more than just market forces going for it. It's hard to condemn Apple for using the DMCA to build a monopoly of its own.

But Doctorow is right to do so.

Really, the entire intellectual property system needs to change. The DMCA should be struck down. The idea that copyrights should last 70 years after authors have died is absurd. The fact that patent terms don't vary according to the pace of the industry involved is equally absurd. Sadly, legislators like to get campaign funds from intellectual property owners in favor of the status quo.

Doctorow offers a ray of hope by pointing out that Yahoo Music has wised up and begun offering unprotected MP3 files. I'm not so sure. Yahoo is charging $1.99 for a single song. That's at least 50% too much. (I wouldn't take a Jessica Simpson song if it were free.)

But at least the market will tell Yahoo if the price isn't right.

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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