Apple and EMI ditching DRM is good, but it's not good enough

Last night the lot of us Engadget editors went to bed with sweet dreams of a DRM-free world dancing through our little heads. Lo and behold, this morning we woke up and to our pleasant surprise, EMI announced that in conjunction with Apple, it would make its entire digital catalogue available on iTunes completely DRM-free. The watershed moment we've all been waiting for -- the first of the Big Four music businesses makes one of the most pro-consumer moves we've seen in years. Or did they? Was today's announcement a real commitment dedicated to consumers' digital rights? Or was it a play for disenfranchised music lovers' hearts? We have a feeling the answer lies somewhere in the middle -- although we can't help but feel the whole thing is gestural at best, and subterfuge at worst. Here's why.

For years Apple has said that given the choice between DRMed and DRM-free media ecosystems, it would always choose the former. Thankfully things seemed to be looking up when Jobs apparently had a change of heart after last year's crippling European pressures wrought havoc on the public perception of the iMonopoly. But we're still nowhere near there yet -- and we don't just mean that the other big labels, Sony BMG, Universal, and Warner, haven't switched over to DRM-free. What we're seeing here is a rabbit being pulled from a hat; it's wonderful, but what does it mean?

We should be clear to start: we don't believe Jobs is leading by example here -- EMI is. EMI is taking a huge, huge step in its business, and we fully commend them. Honestly, we do, kudos to you, EMI. Apple is taking the role of providing the first venue for EMI's great DRM-free music experiment; but what we find disconcerting is that Stevie J. is asking the labels do what he says -- not what he does. Now would be a good time to remind everyone that with last year's acquisition of Pixar, Steve Jobs became the single largest shareholder in the Walt Disney Company. With his $4 billion+ stake in the media megacorp and his seat on the board of directors, you'd think Jobs would be quick to encourage Disney-owned labels, like Hollywood Records, Lyric Street Records, Mammoth Records, and Walt Disney Records, to "embrace [DRM-free] sales wholeheartedly." Perhaps Jobs and Iger don't see as eye-to-eye as they previously postured, or perhaps Jobs is waiting to see whether this is actually the right move for the business, consumers be damned.

The finer details of EMI and Jobs's announcement today were also dubious. Despite the silver lining, which is that full albums should cost the same but will now default to DRM-free files, the two businesses still conflated DRM-free music with the discerning tastes of audiophiles. Steve mentioned that 128-bit AAC just isn't good enough for the sharp-eared, so uncrippled tracks are being bumped to 256Kbps. This gives Apple the ability to sell the music as a separate product and price point, while giving consumers the illusion of greater value. But we don't believe having free, usable, uncrippled media is a feature -- it's what we deserve, and we demand it. Asking customers to pay 30% more for no DRM and a higher bitrate is a distraction, a parlor trick to take our attention away from the philosophical issue: EMI is still selling DRMed music. EMI CEO Eric Nicoli said, "Not everybody cares about interoperability or sound quality." Since when did the two become so intrinsically linked? Sure, not everyone cares to vote either, that doesn't mean it's a premium privilege. Nicoli also stated EMI has taken the view that it must "trust consumers." It's true, today's announcement shows more trust than they ever displayed before -- but it's still conditional trust.

So why not make 99-cent 128-bit AAC tracks DRM free as well? We don't think there's an easy answer, but perhaps this is a move more tentative than people realize; this whole uncrippled music thing might just be an experiment. Assume it's a test to see how many people will buy DRM-free music, and possibly also a test to see how many copy it. If the experiment fails EMI and Apple can blame lack of consumer interest, or quickly inflated rates of piracy -- but they certainly wouldn't ever admit that the 30% price premium and inability to choose smaller file sizes and lower bitrates will have anything to do with lack of uptake. Meanwhile unwitting customers -- the type not to know of the crippling perils of DRM until it's too late -- will just go on buying the cheaper 99-cent tracks. So perhaps you can see why we don't fully believe that Jobs & Co. yet fully believe in a DRM-free ecosystem.

Now take a look at Steve's response to the question of whether TV shows will be sold without DRM. (And keep that $4 billion dollar stake / board of directors seat in mind.) Jobs stated he believed that video is different, and that movies are not an appropriate analogue because they aren't distributed without DRM at the same frequency of sales as music. But why is media not media to the man that's made peddling this media the crux of his business? What is the real difference between music and TV shows and movies when it comes to end-user consumption? We suspect we don't need to answer, but we'd also like to point out that it's probably safe to estimate that nearly 100% of Americans are in range of terrestrial analogue broadcasts from all the "majors" of their particular industry -- and all these broadcasts of flagship, primetime shows are completely DRM-free in analog and often digital TV streams, with which people can record and do with as they please. Jobs's argument about TV, movies, and DRM makes even less sense from a protection point of view: what's easier for users to pirate, a 50MB album, or a 5GB movie?

Lastly, we'd like to point out that, coincidentally, very, very few devices actually stand to benefit from Apple selling DRM-free AAC tracks. The iPod plays MP3s, but popular devices devices by all the big companies -- iRiver, Creative, Archos, most SanDisk devices, etc. (we forgetting any?) -- do not support AAC. In fact, the only other devices that we can think of that supports AAC are a handful of Sony players, the Sansa E200R, and the Zune -- and good luck getting that to work with your Mac or iTunes. We understand it may be a little much to ask that iTunes break its vertical integration and be made extensible for additional device support with this new DRM-free approach, but really, what's the point? Almost no devices play AAC, and Apple is deliberately not making these downloads available in MP3.

The bottom line is this: we want to live in a DRM-free world, and while we're not necessarily convinced that Jobs, Apple, Disney, and EMI do too, at least some of the players in this ecosystem are willing to look at it from the consumer's point of view. That's some of the best news we've heard about the record industry in a long, long while, and we honestly do hope that it sparks an uptick in sales for an industry in turmoil. But we don't approve of misleading sales pitches, confusing conditions, and second guessing what should just be a better consumer experience, and making it seem like some kind of privilege. If these companies are going to dump DRM, they need to really dump it, and never look back -- the buying public, Engadget included, certainly won't.