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programming and human factors

Supporting DRM-Free Music

You've probably read this classic boner of an iPod quote at some point:

No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame.

It's from the Slashdot article on the introduction of the original Apple iPod back in 2001. I had always assumed this particular quote was written by a random Slashdot user in the comments. But in fact, that quote is part of the body of the news entry, and it came directly from Rob Malda, the founder of Slashdot.

Rob's pithy dismissal of the iPod at its introduction has become virtually synonymous with how out of touch the Slashdot crowd is with the rest of the world. It's ripe for parody, as Andy Baio explains:

This is nothing new. It's as old as communication itself. I'm sure that the moment man discovered fire, there was some guy nearby saying, "Too smoky. Can burn you. Lame."

The success of the iPod was anything but a foregone conclusion back in 2001. A quick peek at the first iPod ad provides a little context to how rough that first generation really was compared to the competely polished product we enjoy on store shelves today. But the iPod, and the companion iTunes Store, have been hugely successful:

  • The iTunes Store is the number one music retailer in the US
  • Over 50 million customers
  • Over 4 billion songs sold
  • Music catalog of over 6 million songs

Clearly Apple is doing something right. Except there's one small problem. Music purchased from the Apple store comes encumbered with Apple's flavor of Digital Rights Management, known as FairPlay:

  1. Users can make a maximum of seven CD copies of any particular playlist containing songs purchased from the iTunes Store.
  2. Users can access their purchased songs on a maximum of five computers.
  3. Songs can only be played on a computer with iTunes or an iPod; other mp3 devices do not support FairPlay encoded tracks.

(EMI and independent artists are also offered in "iTunes Plus" DRM-free format -- at last count, around 2 million songs. These songs were originally sold at a 30 cent premium, but later reduced to the standard 99 cents.)

Now, I'm a pragmatist. I'm no fan of DRM, but I do accept that sometimes it is a necessary evil. FairPlay was indeed an acceptable tradeoff when Apple's iTunes Store was one of the few easy and legal ways to get digital music of any kind.

But that's no longer true today. You can generally get the same music for the same price, or less, at Amazon's MP3 store -- completely free of any form of DRM! Reg Braithwaite provides an example:

For example, Bach: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 on 256-bit DRM-free MP3 is just $9.99 from Amazon. The same album is also $9.99 from Apple, but you get DRM. And there are tons of tracks on Amazon that are actually less expensive than on iTMS, so you get better music for less money without the DRM hassle.

Better quality. Less money. And no evil, consumer hostile DRM! It's almost unbelievable. Needless to say, I've been buying as much music as I can from Amazon to vote with my wallet and demonstrate to the music labels that yes, giving the customer what they want does pay. And you should too. Every purchase of DRM-ed music, in the face of Amazon's excellent alternative, is an implicit vote for more useless, aggravating DRM on your music.

If it seems a little odd to you that Amazon is somehow able to offer all this music up DRM-free, while the majority of Apple's iTunes Store catalog is still stuck in the old testament world of DRM customer punishment, you're not alone.

The reason you can find more music on Amazon at a lower price is that the Record Labels want it that way. Do you think they charge Apple and Amazon the same price for each track and Apple simply charges you more and pockets the difference as a higher markup? The labels would like you to think that, but they actually charge Amazon less for each track, and that's how Amazon can charge you less.

Do you think Apple insists on the DRM but Amazon has the vision to see that the future of music is DRM-free? Do you think Jeff Bezos is a better negotiator and he was able to get a better price per track than Steve Jobs? Without putting up with DRM?

The major labels want nothing more than to break Apple's dominance of the digital music business. They spin it as a good thing. More retailers means more competition, which is good for consumers.

The record labels now view the massive iTunes juggernaut as a threat. Thus, the offer of DRM-free music exclusively to Amazon, and at lower prices than Apple can offer, is a direct attack by the record labels on the increasing power of Apple's iTunes. The irony of the record labels attacking a Frankenstein monster of their very own creation is almost overwhelming -- who do you think demanded that all the music on iTunes have DRM in the first place?

But here's where Reg Braithwaite and I differ: he argues that poor Apple is getting a raw deal.

And if the whole world can sell DRM-free music, then Amazon and the like would have to compete with iTMS by building a better music store. Except, of course, they don't have to compete with iTMS because the labels are colluding to place Apple at a disadvantage.

I'll certainly agree that the stunning success of the iTunes Store is what led us to this competitive situation in the first place, and that's entirely to Apple's credit. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe they've made quite the handsome profit along the way, too.

But to argue that the competition is "unfair" smacks of the absolute worst kind of Apple advocacy. Unfair? Unfair to whom? The customers who are getting DRM-free music officially blessed by the major record labels?

Yeah, that's terrible. Just awful.

Hold on for a minute while I wipe this tear out of my eye. Try to imagine me playing my DRM-free MP3 of REM's "Everybody Hurts" while I'm doing it, for maximum effect.

As soon as they can break this pesky iPod-iTMS-iPhone nonsense, the labels want to get back to dictating what you pay and how often you pay.

You'll get no argument from me that the RIAA and the major record labels are as close as you can get to pure evil while not actively killing small children, puppies, and kittens. Well, not in public, anyway. I'm sure they'd be charging us a trillion dollars per song -- no, per byte of the song -- if they could get away with it.

But clearly, they can't. There are certain market realities at work here. There's absolutely no historical evidence that a type of media, once it is officially sold DRM free, can somehow revert back to the DRM model. I am somehow reminded of software developers who desperately try to "revoke" the GPL after they've adopted it.

So if the labels want to disrupt the power of the iTunes machine by doing the right thing for customers and irrevocably breaking the back of DRM on music, that is the beauty of pure competition working for us, the users. This is a level of progress on the DRM front that I thought we would never see.

If it takes "the labels break[ing] Apple", as Reg says, to get us this far, then so be it. That kind of invective may be difficult to read if you're emotionally involved with Apple. But let me tell you, I've been emotionally involved with companies before, and it rarely ends well. I find that corporations never reciprocate your love in quite the same way.

Personally, I'd much rather be an advocate for my fellow users than an advocate of any one particular company. For now, that means supporting Amazon's DRM-free MP3 store. I'm pretty sure the good folks at 1 Infinite Loop will survive, one way or another.

Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Exchange and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: http://twitter.com/codinghorror