Reality Bytes: Thoughts on Apple, EMI, and DRM: To Unprotect and Serve?

Here's some summer reading: Thoughts on Music, by Apple's Steve Jobs (apple.com/hotnews/thoughtsonmusic). It's not a romance novel, or even a juicy tell-all. Instead, his short treatise may change the future of recorded music.

Jobs says Digital Rights Management - the technical infrastructure that attempts to prevent illegal copying of music - should be abolished. Record labels should let people buy DRM-free songs. He writes: "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." Sweet. After all, 90% of music titles sold, including billions of CDs, don't have DRM and are freely copyable. If DRM doesn't significantly reduce piracy and instead only hinders online sales and inconveniences customers, why bother with it?

Here's why: After letting the horse out of the barn with CDs, record labels don't want to screw up again with downloads. They want the world to transition away from unprotected CDs and into a future of protected downloads. It's too late to put DRM on CDs, but they understandably want it in place for the future.

After Thoughts on Music appeared, the speculation started. Would any of the Big Four labels respond? After decades of support for DRM, would any of them actually consider dropping it? The answer was swift and surprising: EMI announced it will release DRM-free tracks that can be copied and played on any player. Downloading will be easier and sound quality better - for a price. DRM-protected iTunes tracks (at 128-kilobits-per-second AAC) will still cost 99¢. Unprotected tracks (256-kbps AAC) will cost $1.29. You can upgrade protected songs to unprotected. (At presstime, Amazon.com said it, too, will sell DRM-free songs.)

Jobs isn't dumb. If DRM is removed, Apple wins. Bypassing DRM would boost iPod and iTunes sales - and Apple profits. EMI wins, too, because it can jack up prices; clearly, the higher bit rate doesn't cost the company anything. But do consumers win? Is the price premium a legitimate "tax" we pay to respect ownership? Or should you pay extra for music that doesn't assume you are going to steal it?

DRM-free downloads: breakthrough or corporate rip-off? You decide.

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