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DRM + iPhone = eeEEEeee-vil says NYT

I spent some of my lazy holiday Monday pondering an appropriate response to Randall Stross's article (not clearly billed as either news or opinion) in Sunday's New York Times entitled Want an iPhone? Beware the iHandcuffs, a fairly... odd interweaving of gripes about the 'lock-in' factor of the iTunes Store, starting with his contention that FairPlay is 'crippleware.' He's taking that term from the delightful Tucker vs. Apple lawsuit, which should give you a hint where he's coming from on this one.

Stross (who also wrote a fine item in 2005 about why Sony didn't build the iPod) has some basic points: DRM bad; iTunes Store has DRM; look at Plays for Sure and all the Microsoft customers that got rogered; iPhone bad; eMusic and other unencumbered music sales online, good.

While I have no real love for FairPlay, and I do worry that my iTunes purchases might not survive future device changes, I couldn't quite put my finger on the core bogosity of his thesis. As is often the case in the Mac-blogosphere, John Gruber got his opinion out of his brain with more speed and pith than I could muster:

You can "pledge a lifetime commitment to the iPod" and never once come into contact with a FairPlay-protected song or video. If you don't like FairPlay's restrictions - and there are plenty of good reasons not to - then don't buy any, and rip your music from regular CDs.
iTunes Store music and video locks you in. iPods and iPhones do not.

Gruber is right, but I would say (after the needed pondering) that he doesn't go far enough.

More after the break...

Stross goes on at great length about the lock-in factor of the iTMS and the benefits of eMusic's pure-MP3 sales approach, without ever mentioning the obvious: iPods play MP3s, and eMusic supports iPods -- there's even an iPod on the eMusic home page, for crying out loud. You can already buy DRM-free music for your iPod, so the question shouldn't be "Why FairPlay?" but "Why aren't more iPod owners doing this?"

Stross carefully mentions Nettwerk label head Terry McBride's theory that major labels will drop DRM for song purchases to allow iPod owners to shop at online music stores besides iTunes, but never acknowledges the elephant in the room: eMusic already does that for the indie labels. To clarify that point -- after already highlighting the dramatically 2nd-place status of eMusic's 100 million song sales to iTunes 2 billion -- would blow his argument down. I won't even go into the issue of all the DRM-free content that the iTMS relays to iPods, in the form of podcasts.

It's a shame that Stross's piece has such holes, because encouraging iPod owners to seek out other sources of music is a good thing; it's also good to think about portability and future-proofing when investing in digital media. If Stross could acknowledge the reasons why customers put up with FairPlay and stick with the iTMS -- namely, that it's DRM that stays mostly out of your way, and the complete experience is lightyears ahead of competing music ecosystems -- instead of immediately branding the hottest new device since the wheel as 'crippleware,' he might have an easier time of it.

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