Steve Jobs’ essay “Thoughts on Music,” which essentially shifts the blame for iTunes DRM to the record labels, has gotten a lot of buzz. I’m happy that he’s claiming Apple would sell music without DRM. But as others have argued, Apple could be selling (or giving away) non-DRM-restricted audio files right now. The “big four” record labels do have leverage over Apple, but Apple has gone farther than absolutely necessary by excluding non-DRM-restricted files from the iTunes Music Store. This gives the false impression that DRM is a market standard. In fact, there are several other competing download-for-sale services that use MP3 format (which has no DRM).
Why would the big four music companies agree to let Apple and others distribute their music without using DRM systems to protect it? The simplest answer is because DRMs haven’t worked, and may never work, to halt music piracy. Though the big four music companies require that all their music sold online be protected with DRMs, these same music companies continue to sell billions of CDs a year which contain completely unprotected music. That’s right! No DRM system was ever developed for the CD, so all the music distributed on CDs can be easily uploaded to the Internet, then (illegally) downloaded and played on any computer or player.
This is sort of misleading, as there have been several attempts to use modified, non-Red-Book standard discs which could not be copied by a computer, but which appear to be normal CDs to standalone CD players (and purchasers). E.g., Sony’s copy protection scheme.
But the point is well taken. DRM is not viable in the long term, either technologically (because you have to give the user the key) or socially (because people will copy when it’s easy, but also buy when it’s easy). Now Apple just needs to put its MP3s where its mouth is.