Denki News

July 15, 2006

iTunes Music Store Special Report, Part 2: Criticisms of Apple’s FairPlay DRM

Filed under: iPod & iTunes — icruise @ 11:23 pm


A lot of fuss has been made over DRM recently, and ironically Apple has been at the center of much of it. I say ironically because Apple’s FairPlay DRM is probably the best implementation of DRM that I’ve heard of. It’s certainly one of the easiest to understand, and as a regular iTMS customer I’ve rarely felt the DRM rules to be a problem. However, some people are against DRM as a matter of principle and since Apple has some 80% of the online music market, FairPlay has come under fire. The people behind Defective By Design have even gone so far as to stage protests at Apple Stores. (More after the jump.)

I personally think that the online stores offering “subscription” services are actually doing more harm to the consumer, since they are attempting to lure people in with low monthly fees and the promise that you can download all the music you want. But aside from the fact that a lot of these services limit how you can use the music you download (not being able to burn songs to a CD, for example) the biggest problem is that you are locked into paying a monthly fee. If you don’t pay that fee, all of the music you have downloaded will be useless. If you want to keep your music, you basically have to pay that monthly fee for the rest of your life, and there’s nothing to stop these stores from increasing the fee, either. Don’t want to pay the new fee? Tough. You have to or you lose all your music.

But it’s the principle of DRM that upsets many people and not how it works in practice. And actually, I agree with them. Anything that limits how the consumer can use what they have rightly paid for is bad. But I am also enough of a realist to admit that without some form of DRM, we would still be stuck without online music stores (or at least stores with the major artists that most people want). A lot of the people up in arms over DRM seem to forget that just a few short years ago there was essentially no such thing as a legal music download. The RIAA was in a state of panic over file sharing services such as Napster and would never have allowed something like the iTunes Music Store to distribute music from major artists without some kind of guarantee that they would not be making the file sharing epidemic (as they saw it) worse. It seems to me that if you’re going to protest against someone in this situation, you should protest the RIAA, not Apple or the other online music stores. That said, I have a feeling that Apple isn’t exactly upset about having to use DRM, since it gives them a handy way to lock people into buying iPods.

This brings me to the second group of critics. While Defective By Design and others are against all forms of DRM, other people are critical of Apple’s refusal to license their FairPlay DRM to other companies. Apple is not playing fair, they say. It has a monopoly on the online music market and is using that muscle to unfairly push its own product (the iPod). Not surprisingly, this seems to be the attitude of most of Apple’s competitors. They would love to be able to create a music player that could play iTMS songs. Some people point to Microsoft and its “PlaysForSure” DRM scheme, which is used by a large number of online services and music players. Why can’t Apple just license FairPlay in the same way?

What this fails to recognize is that Microsoft’s business model is totally different from Apple’s. Microsoft makes money by licensing PlaysForSure, so it’s to their advantage to have as many stores and manufacturers use it as possible. Microsoft doesn’t make any music players (at least not yet) and they don’t run their own online music store. By contrast, Steve Jobs has been quoted as saying that iTMS doesn’t actually make Apple very much money — most of the profits go to the record companies. While the iTMS is certainly profitable, its main purpose is not to make money by selling music, but rather to encourage people to buy iPods. I don’t know if the phenomenal success of the iTMS has changed this situation at all, but it’s safe to say that without the iPod, the iTMS would not exist. It would only make sense for Apple to license FairPlay if they could make more money from the license fees than they currently make on iPods. That doesn’t seem likely in the near future.

All this talk of “playing fair” and “choice for the user” is really just another way for Apple’s competitors to say that they want to take advantage of the online music distribution service that Apple worked so hard to create. If you argue that Apple is somehow morally obligated to open up its music to players from all manufacturers, you might as well argue that Nintendo is being unfair by not allowing DS games to be played on the PSP, or that Xbox games should be playable on the PS2. While it would be more convenient for the consumer if all music worked in all players (or if all games worked on all consoles), the realities of the market make this unlikely.

That said, the iPod’s popularity can’t last forever, and I imagine that Apple will eventually have to look into licensing FairPlay if they want to keep the iTMS alive. But as long as the consumer is aware of the restrictions placed on iTMS music I don’t see anything unfair or immoral about what Apple is doing. In the next part of this series, I will examine some potential problems with the iTMS that users should be aware of.

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