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FairPlay: coming to a classroom near you?

Jay Savage

We haven't talked about iTunes U here in a while, but it's been on my mind lately, as I'm heading up my U's roll-out. It's a long, tortuous process--because of our internal bureaucracy, not Apple's--but, despite the fact I haven't been talking to our official reps (the extent of those conversations has been "we're still working out the details"), I have had the opportunity to sit down with some people from Apple and talk about the project. One of the topics of discussion was the direction of iTunes U 2.0 development. Apparently Apple has significantly increased the personnel dedicated to the project and has a number of enhancements planned. The person I was talking to couldn't tell me what, exactly, but he said that they were looking at community feature requests. Naturally, my next question was "well, what features have people requested?" The answers surprised me. Among the most requested features is on-site storage. This was a little bit of a shock, since one of the selling points for me was letting Apple handle the potentially multi-terabyte storage requirements and not worring about managing--not to mention funding--a SAN of that size myself. I can understand, though, that people want to keep control of their own information, and have on-site backups, etc. Closely following that was e-commerce capability. Again, a bit of a surprise. I wouldn't expect a free service to allow me to charge for access. on the other hand, I suspect that some professors would like to include materials that require royalty payment, so some vehicle for processing that will be required eventually, I suppose.

The #1 request, though, completely floored me: DRM. In fact, it is so in-demand that it has apparently been the deal-breaker for the majority of universities that had been approached about iTunes U and refused. That revelation literally left me speechless. It's one thing to realize that not everyone is as rabidly anti-DRM as I am, but DRM in the classroom flies in the face of not only my general IP position, but everything I like to believe about academic freedom. I've heard of cases, of course, where universities have claimed faculty-developed course materials as work-for-hire and property of the university, but that's never been the case at any university I've been associated with and I've generally understood that those were fringe cases. The idea that a significant number of universities would refuse to participate in iTunes U because of a lack of DRM is just...staggering.

Of course, that doesn't mean that FairPlay or any other DRM will find its way into iTunes U. But if Apple is dedicated to the project and the one of the biggest stumbling blocks seems to be DRM, well, you do the math.

And the worst part? If FairPlay does show up it won't be Apple's fault, or even the RIAA's. The universities will have done it to themselves.

Update: just wanted to clarify that second sentence a little. It's come to my attention that the original wording led a couple of people to jump to incorrect conclusions. You guys remember the bit about "assume," right?

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