Last week's "discussion" surrounding the merits of DRM was a rare glimpse into the heavy C-level posturing usually obstructed by the gold-plated doors of the digital music industry. The event was, of course, kicked off by none other than Steve Jobs in his open letter titled "Thoughts on Music" -- a thinly veiled attempt to redirect the litigious ire of Europe toward the "Big Four" record labels, and away from Apple's own iTunes Store and FairPlay DRM.
Responses were mixed as you'd expect. First, Sandisk -- the number 2 audio player maker in the US -- had the gall to blow kisses and bat their eyes in the direction of the Big Four even after publicly chastising their use of DRM just a few weeks prior. Then the RIAA demonstrated their utter befuddlement by welcoming Jobs' non-existent offer to license FairPlay. Most poetically, Warner Music CEO Edgar Bronfman chimed in to call Jobs' DRM fight "without logic" -- this, from the man who admits that he's "fairly certain" his own children have pirated music, while simultaneously shielding them from his very own RIAA henchmen who merrily and routinely sue other children and their parents for the same crime. More recently, Macrovision's CEO Fred Amoroso presented a pro-DRM argument so fudged it was difficult to tell whether or not he was joking.
But Monster Cable came out to back "Jobs' vision" with Dave Goldberg, (now former) head of Yahoo Music, again voicing his support for "removing DRM on music." More importantly, Goldberg cites "experiments" where it offered music without DRM with a noticeable boost in sales. Taking that bait, David Pakman, CEO of eMusic -- the number 2 online music retailer in the US -- says that music sales "would explode" without DRM holding the market back. Ah, so that's what EMI is up to.
[Read on for an analysis and discussion of DRM technologies.]
Now, if we can assume for a second that Steve Jobs is the single most powerful man in digital media (being that he runs Apple, with the iPod and iTunes, and sits on Disney's board, with its many labels, networks, and studios), then Bill Gates is surely a close second. Although he hasn't commented publicly on Steve's open letter, it's worth recalling that in December, even Bill -- the man at the head of the company that gave us the DRM-crippled Zune, PlaysForSure, and now PlayReady -- said that DRM has "huge problems" so "people should just buy a CD and rip it." While we'd love to see the two men -- the content industry's two primary enablers of DRM technology for end users -- join hands and bring an end to the madness, we're not rehearsing our kumbaya lyrics just yet, dear readers.
In an industry flaccid from finger pointing, let us remind you of the sorry state of disrepair plaguing so-called Digital Rights Management:
HD DVD films
AACS among others
Blu-ray Disc films
AACS among others
JHymn and QTFairUse are among the most common tools working with the latest release of iTunes (7.0.2)
PlaysForSure music (Napster, MTV Urge, MusicMatch, etc.)
Windows Media DRM
FairUse4WM 1.3 with IBX version 11.0.5XXX.XXXX and earlier -- still does not work in Vista.
TiVo video recordings
encoded .tivo files
TiVoDecode Manager GUI wrapper
More applications than we can list -- MacTheRipper (Mac) and AnyDVD (PC) will do the job
Latest iTunes or Windows Media Player 11 (among countless others) will rip your music to your hard disk
Microsoft Vista "premium content"
Protected Media Path DRM
None -- Alex, we're waiting
You'll note some obvious omissions above such as the new Zune Marketplace and its DRM (which is basically just PlaysForSure, and can even be played on some PFS-compatible devices) or Sony's Sony Connect music store and OpenMG DRM, both mentioned in Jobs' open letter and both uncompromised to date. However, that has less to do with "surperior DRM" than the result of a DRM's likelihood of being hacked being directly proportional to its popularity. In other words, if the content on those systems achieved the popularity of the items listed in the table above, they will each, eventually, be hacked as well.
But those aren't the only thoughts on music we've been having, of late. With last year's acquisition of Pixar, Steve Jobs became the single largest shareholder in the Walt Disney Company, the media megacorp he helps to steer from his seat on the board of directors. Walt Disney Company media runs throughout Jobs' iTunes: Apple sells Disney-owned music by artists on Hollywood Records, Lyric Street Records, Mammoth Records, and Walt Disney Records, Disney-owned TV shows from its ABC, ESPN, A&E, and History Channel networks, and, of course, movies from Disney-owned studios like Disney, Pixar, Touchstone, and Miramax. So why is all of that content still sold on iTunes with DRM? Really, we'd like to know, because that's an environment Steve does have some control over, a place where he could drop DRM "in a heartbeat."
Still, despite all the politicking and handwringing on the subject, let's not forget that certain bit of truth found in Steve's words: "DRMs haven't worked, and may never work, to halt music piracy." As such, we join the EFF and "DVD" Jon Lech Johansen to urge Apple to take the first step -- strip the DRM from the independent label and Disney-owned music, TV, and movie content in the iTunes Store. Show the "Big Four" you mean business... and we'll all reward you with ours.