451 - On-Who-Benefits-from-DRM

Humor me if you would. I was thinking about selling music online. Apple’s music store proves at least one thing: that people are willing to buy music online. If you think about this, it is what both consumers and the recording industry would like: to be able to purchase music and to be able to make money from people purchasing music respectively.

Aside from one problem: the DRM Apple applies to all songs bought from the store. For the consumer this stops them doing all they might like to do with a track. From the point of view of the recording industry, it allows Apple to manipulate them in ways they don’t like because of the market share Apple has. So if the DRM doesn’t benefit the people who buy music, nor the people who create music, then who does it benefit?

The main beneficiary of the DRM applied to ITMS tracks is Apple, as it provides a method to lock in people to Apple’s products not just now, but for the future. If you choose to use a non-Apple product, you cannot play the music you bought from Apple on it. Apple now have a large share of the online music market, and this lock in allows them to have clout on the industry on one side and the consumer on the other.

It is reasonably easy to remove the DRM from Apple’s music, either by using a program to do it or simply by burning the tracks to a CD and then re-ripping them back onto your computer. Of course, this allows people to unlock the tracks they have, but with a loss of quality, making it less than optimal for use unlocking tracks for use in other places. For file-sharing, however, the loss of quality is fine, so if people want to share music it is easy for them.

The recording industry insists on DRM as they think it will prevent file-sharing. As shown, any DRM scheme that is not overly restrictive on the consumer — as any that prevents creating a CD for playing on a hifi surely is — doesn’t offer any protection for file-sharing.

The recording industry is now making noises to the effect that Apple should open up its DRM technology to other companies as they are now desperate for Apple’s monopoly to be broken. The chances of Apple willingly doing this is close to zero. To the industry they can say “look at all these tracks we are selling, you wouldn’t want to jeopardize that, would you?”. To customers, they put forward the idea that the music industry forces them to apply DRM (which is true) and say, “well, at least it’s fairly lax”. So Apple can keep their lock in, whilst both the customers and the music industry lose out.

Of course, this is not just Apple’s stance — of late Microsoft have decided to do the same thing in their newly-announced Zune line of products. Microsoft have decided that the slightly more available-to-others-to-use PlaysForSure line isn’t very profitable and so are moving to the Apple hardware-software-store modus operandi. Perhaps this is the only way for DRM to make money for the technology companies.

If the technology creators can only make money with this stranglehold mechanism, it behests the music industry to stop mandating DRM and allow for unencumbered tracks to be sold. It’s unlikely to increase file-sharing — after all, all music ripped from a CD is unencumbered anyway — and would allow for more competition in the music selling market. In the end this would benefit all parties: the customer, the recording industry and retailers other than the technology companies.

(As an aside, Yahoo have recently been vocal in saying that having to implement Microsoft’s DRM in their music store is so painful they have been trying to get the big record labels to move towards allowing mp3 versions of songs — how effective this pressure is, however, only time will tell.)

Whether Apple or Microsoft would lose out — after all they could divert the money currently being sunk into DRM towards more useful pursuits — is an immaterial consideration: the negativity that DRM causes for everyone else makes selling DRM encumbered music illogical and something we could all do without.

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