Hari's Corner

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Some thoughts on Apple and DRM

Filed under: Software and Technology by Hari
Posted on Sat, Feb 10, 2007 at 15:26 IST (last updated: Wed, Oct 29, 2008 @ 22:31 IST)

After reading this article "Thoughts on Music" by Steve Jobs which has become quite popular online, I'm quite surprised when so many people assume that Apple are on the side of the customer in the DRM issue. A careful reading of this article made me more than sure that the real reason Steve Jobs wrote this article was to: To be sure, it's a thoughtfully worded article - a masterpiece in propaganda if there was ever one. Here's an extract from the article - an instance of what I'm talking about:
Some have argued that once a consumer purchases a body of music from one of the proprietary music stores, they are forever locked into only using music players from that one company. Or, if they buy a specific player, they are locked into buying music only from that company’s music store. Is this true? Let’s look at the data for iPods and the iTunes store – they are the industry’s most popular products and we have accurate data for them. Through the end of 2006, customers purchased a total of 90 million iPods and 2 billion songs from the iTunes store. On average, that’s 22 songs purchased from the iTunes store for each iPod ever sold.

Today’s most popular iPod holds 1000 songs, and research tells us that the average iPod is nearly full. This means that only 22 out of 1000 songs, or under 3% of the music on the average iPod, is purchased from the iTunes store and protected with a DRM. The remaining 97% of the music is unprotected and playable on any player that can play the open formats. It’s hard to believe that just 3% of the music on the average iPod is enough to lock users into buying only iPods in the future. And since 97% of the music on the average iPod was not purchased from the iTunes store, iPod users are clearly not locked into the iTunes store to acquire their music.
What's the big deal with throwing around these numbers? It's stating the obvious! Everybody knows Apple doesn't make the big bucks selling music. If they were, then they would obviously be a lot more pro-DRM. They can afford to take the popular anti-DRM stance. It's not a big sacrifice on their part at all. They make money on the hardware.

In particular, read the highlighted line carefully. They're trying hard to dispel the image that they're trying to lock in customers to their hardware - that is their real focus. Apple want to dispel that image badly. They have tacitly admitted that DRM music cannot be a success with their hardware. At the same time, if the Music companies had their way, DRM would be a success and nobody would be able to be able to listen to music without DRM. Apple want to immediately disclaim responsibility on that point. Sheer genius...
So if the music companies are selling over 90 percent of their music DRM-free, what benefits do they get from selling the remaining small percentage of their music encumbered with a DRM system? There appear to be none. If anything, the technical expertise and overhead required to create, operate and update a DRM system has limited the number of participants selling DRM protected music. If such requirements were removed, the music industry might experience an influx of new companies willing to invest in innovative new stores and players. This can only be seen as a positive by the music companies.
Perfect, again. The highlighted point is the crux of the issue: the technical overheads required to create, operate and update a DRM system. Nowhere do I see any moral objection to the concept of DRM itself - as a means of limiting a paying customer from exercising his/her rights to fair use. It's an argument which essentially highlights an economic and technical reason to abandon DRM. While this might sound like music (no pun intended) to many customers' ears, the barrier might possibly be overcome at any point of time when DRM does become feasible. In that case, would Apple back the Music companies on the DRM issue? Nowhere does Apple commit itself to this issue and it's obvious why. If DRM does force more people to choose Apple hardware, why should they oppose it? Such a situation can be easily created through a deal between the Music companies and Apple if the right conditions arise. The question is whether those conditions will ever be created at all.

In other words, they're not interested in the other aspects of DRM - legal, social and ethical. And why should they be? They're a shrewd business entity... and their motive is profit and market-share. When they have both, why should they really worry about what are essentially peripheral issues to them?

More than anything, this line tells me that people who are against DRM cannot rely on Apple to take a firm stand against the technology. For Apple have clearly embraced DRM whether they say so or not. They want to have it both ways, for sure, but when it come to the crunch, they will not say "no" to DRM and risk the wrath of the music industry. Steve says so very clearly:
Much of the concern over DRM systems has arisen in European countries. Perhaps those unhappy with the current situation should redirect their energies towards persuading the music companies to sell their music DRM-free.
Those unhappy with the situation? Clearly Apple aren't unhappy. In fact, they're laughing all the way to the bank after selling their iPods.

This article was clearly intended as an exercise in PR. And in reality, that's exactly what it is. Apple aren't against DRM. They will clearly embrace DRM if they see that it is to their benefit. The only reason I see for them to oppose DRM is for business reasons. And business reasons dictate that since the majority of iPod users are people who're playing copied music without DRM support they don't embrace it wholeheartedly. (a.k.a. continue playing ball with both sides)

So whose side are they really on? The simple answer - neither side. They're on their own side vigilantly guarding their interests.

Point out the music industry to the customer and the customer to the music industry and then wait and watch from a distance. Reminds me of the story where two dogs were fighting over a piece of biscuit and the monkey came between them to arbitrate. In the end, the monkey ended up with the biscuit... Oh yes, Apple are shrewd, all right.

9 comment(s)

  1. Yep. Companies protect their own interest... (shock, horror... :shock: ) Good call, Hari. It's not good to trumpet things that aren't actually 100% backing you. Apple sells its (groovy, good looking) hardware at a profit- hardware is real. It's hard to make people not pay money for real stuff- it is ingrained that real stuff has value. Virtual stuff, though... Too bad Microsoft sell their hardware at a loss, though. :twisted:

    Comment by titanium (visitor) on Sat, Feb 10, 2007 @ 16:41 IST #
  2. Yeah, I know it's stating the obvious. But it's surprising how many people have been completely taken in by that article. Shows the success of that message though.As for Apple, they will always be unwilling to commit themselves either way while always appearing to give the impression of commitment.I don't want to sound excessively cynical, but I didn't see any kind of commitment to an anti-DRM policy, especially considering that they *have* embraced DRM. It's not as though they've suddenly discovered the light. They always knew that whole-hearted commitment to DRM would spell disaster in a market where more than 90% of the customers don't buy music online.But just like Apple protect their own interests the customers should be doing the same. Unfortunately the customer is being bombarded with just the kind of propaganda that essentially wants to brainwash them into accepting what is thrown at them without demur.

    Comment by hari (blog owner) on Sat, Feb 10, 2007 @ 16:47 IST #
  3. I don't buy my music online ever. I'll usually get half of the cd from the artist that is willing to share one or more of their songs, if I like them, I'll usually buy their cd to support them, rip it to place on computer and mp3 player.I just don't like the idea of not owning an actual copy of the music and it also provides me with a backup, so I'm not wasting valuable space on another machine to backup my music, it's already backed up with the best available format with the cd itself.And most of my music is from independent labels anyways, I try my best to not support any label associated with the RIAA.

    Comment by drew (visitor) on Sat, Feb 10, 2007 @ 19:53 IST #
  4. Nowhere do I see any moral objection to the concept of DRM itself - as a means of limiting a paying customer from exercising his/her rights to fair useReally?The third alternative is to abolish DRMs entirely. Imagine a world where every online store sells DRM-free music encoded in open licensable formats. In such a world, any player can play music purchased from any store, and any store can sell music which is playable on all players. This is clearly the best alternative for consumers, and Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat.

    Comment by Stephen (visitor) on Sat, Feb 10, 2007 @ 20:14 IST #
  5. Stephen, I read it several times carefully. That's only an "ideal-world" situation they portray... Nowhere do they want to actually say that they would oppose DRM *even* when DRM is imposed on the customer by the music companies... If the situation changes in a few years from now and DRM-music is the norm and becomes profitable, would they be bold or willing enough to challenge it?To me, what they've currently committed is simply going with the flow and the current sentiment. That's where I think they've tried to fudge the issue... by not taking a strong stand. "No matter what, we're committed to non-DRM music" - I don't see that anywhere.Drew, you're right. Buying music online is simply not a good business model right now and Apple have correctly recognized the market sentiment and are merely echoing it in a clever, PR-friendly way.

    Comment by hari (blog owner) on Sat, Feb 10, 2007 @ 20:21 IST #
  6. Excellent article, Hari. I should point a few of my Mac-using friends this way - some are stereotypical Mac users and have been completely taken in by Steve's article :roll:

    Comment by J_K9 (visitor) on Mon, Feb 12, 2007 @ 18:59 IST #
  7. J_K9, thanks. The article by Steve was very well written and served its purpose. At the same time, I don't think us customers can completely blind our eyes to reality - that Apple are far more protective of their own technology than any other company.It's easy to play the "good guy" when it comes to somebody else's property. That's exactly what Apple are doing.

    Comment by hari (blog owner) on Mon, Feb 12, 2007 @ 19:10 IST #
  8. It's simple, and it's an effective PR move. They're passing the bucket and pissing in it on the way :)

    Comment by J_K9 (visitor) on Tue, Feb 13, 2007 @ 00:35 IST #
  9. That's a crude way to put it, but you've hit the spot. :lol:

    Comment by hari (blog owner) on Tue, Feb 13, 2007 @ 16:56 IST #

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