Donut Age: America's Donut Magazine

Meet the new hacks, same as the old hacks

Cory Doctorow's article on Digital Rights Management in InformationWeek a few weeks back is a sad example of the "new" journalists of the blogosphere being every bit as sensationalist and inaccurate as the "old" journalists they disdain. Provocatively titled "Apple's Copy Protection Isn't Just Bad For Consumers, It's Bad For Business," this piece is a muddled critique of DRM that inexplicably blames Apple—purveyors of the most consumer-friendly and commercially successful DRM scheme in existence—for all of the problems inherent with copy-protection generally. Even more bizarrely, the article somehow manages to portray the entertainment industry—whose short-sighted, heavy-handed policies have given us our current DRM mess—as victims of mean old bullying Apple.

I am no more a fan of DRM than Doctorow, and if this were simply a critique of copy protection in general, I'd be shouting "Amen" along with the sermon. But the article specifically and pointedly targets Apple's DRM, despite admitting that it is among the most liberal such schemes in existence and (in the case of music files) relatively easily circumvented. With math that recalls Napster's bogus $10,000 iPod campaign from 2005, Doctorow invokes the old bogeyman of Apple's supposed lock-in of its customers:

At 20 tracks a year, you add 50 percent to the cost of switching away from an iPod in five years. In 10 years, you double the cost. And if you buy more than 20 tracks a year -- or splurge for audiobooks, full albums, and other high-ticket iTunes Music Store items -- you'll find yourself in hock for thousands of dollars that you'll flush away if you change vendors.
Sure, you could conceivably burn and rip all that music (except the audiobooks, which will come out mangled into 70-minute chunks) if you want to spend a couple days with your burner, and don't mind retyping all that tedious metadata. The more music you have--the better a customer you've been for the iTunes Music Store--the more onerous this task becomes.

There are a number of obfuscations here: the scenario began with the question, what if another vendor were to finally create an iPod-killer a couple years from now?, but it morphs itself into a picture of a customer's decade-long investment of "thousands of dollars...flush[ed] away" by the change in platform. But the loss of the investment is really a red herring since Doctorow has already acknowledged that in fact, one can burn Apple copy-protected files to CD and re-rip them to escape the DRM, so he throws in some completely exaggerated claims about the time it takes to burn CDs ("a couple of days"?) and the tedium of entering metadata (CDDB, anyone?). As silly as all these arguments are, there's a more fundamental flaw to this reasoning: Doctorow ignores the fact that the iPod was a success before there was a music store to buy from, and that, as John Gruber has observed, "iPod sales are driving people to use the ITMS, not the other way around". In any case, he contradicts this whole lock-in argument towards the end of the article, when he states:

Steve Jobs really doesn't care how many CPUs you play an iTune on, or whether you burn a playlist seven or 10 times. He wants you to get locked into iPods, not fall prey to some pie-in-the-sky pipe-dream where "consumers" pay for "features" like pausing a track or playing it in a different country. Steve Jobs's crippleware exists only to lure the entertainment industry in, not to control you in any meaningful way.

So Apple is locking consumers into the iPod platform with a proprietary music format, but they leave lots of holes in the copy protection because they aren't interested in controlling users "in any meaningful way"? How then have they locked anyone in? To further confuse the issue, Doctorow also trots out the industry talking point that iPod users are just stealing all their music anyway:

At the end of the day, though, we customers can always vote with our wallets. That's what many of us have done: P2P file-sharing of infringing music is the fastest-adopted technology in the history of the world. Even loyal iTunes customers are not filling their 10,000-song iPods at $0.99 a track (nor does the average 10,000-song-iPod-owner have a thousand CDs waiting to be ripped at home). Creative Commons-licensed music, public domain music, and other freely shareable content accounts for some of those hard-disk sectors to be sure. But the customer has decided, by and large, to avoid Apple's lock-in by not buying anything at all -- they've joined the majority of Internet users in decided that copyright infringement is your best entertainment dollar.

Besides being slanderous in accusing "the majority of internet users" of being criminals, the claim that consumers are simply not buying copy-protected music is quite untrue. Paid downloads are growing very quickly, so much so that major labels like EMI are seeing an increase in overall sales for the first time in years, despite the fact that CD sales continue to plummet.

Similarly contradictory logic prevails when Doctorow looks at the industry side of the equation. Doctorow paints a picture of a music industry that got hoodwinked by Apple into putting their music on ITMS and now are being pushed around by Steve Jobs:

The CEO of one of the largest music companies in the world went to a mere retailer and asked for the tiniest flexibility in its marketing plans and was all but laughed out of the boardroom. Why not? If Apple doesn't want to give in to Warner's terms, what's Warner going to do? Withdraw its iTunes licenses? Sell exclusively over Rhapsody or Yahoo Music? Lots of luck selling music that won't play on the world's most popular music player.
That's the real irony. The music industry provided the bait to Apple, in the form of the regulatory monopolies it receives over its copyrights. Apple hijacked that monopoly and used it to hook us.
Warner can't authorize Real or Yahoo or Microsoft to break Apple's copy restriction in order to enable its own music to be copied onto a new device. Even though it holds those copyrights, it has lost control over its destiny.

It's disingenuous to call an industry scheme to squeeze even more money out of consumers by charging premium rates for popular items "the tiniest bit of flexibility," but it is flat out deceptive to claim that it's somehow Apple's fault that consumers have to put up with proprietary DRM. The only source of the "monopoly" that Apple "hijacked" is the music industry itself. They insisted on the DRM (remember, the iPod started out as an mp3 player, not an ITMS player), and they could break this monopoly tomorrow by dropping their demand for DRM'd music. John Gruber has described the the music industry's bind more accurately:

But that’s not what the music industry wants. Yes, there exist legal download stores that sell music in MP3 format (e.g. — but they don’t have content from the major record labels, because the major record labels refuse to allow their music to be sold for download without DRM. The music industry’s insistence upon DRM is what put the ITMS in the position that Apple now enjoys; the record industry is decrying a lock-in advantage that they themselves handed to Apple so they could deny their customers (i.e. us, the people who listen to music) the interoperability they now say they want.

By the by, thousands of independent labels as well as holders of large jazz and classical catalogs have decided to go the non-DRM route., which offers DRM-less mp3s has a large (1.4 million songs) and growing catalog of non-major-label music and more than 175,000 subscribers. All of this music is perfectly compatible with both the iPod and its various competitors (so much, again, for lock-in).

Doctorow's portrait of an enfeebled music industry being pushed around by one retailer also does not jibe with his own description of the industry's power when it comes to pushing other kinds of protection schemes.

Is that the answer, then? Standardized crippleware that can be implemented by all comers? There are lots of these efforts under way, from the well-known (Blu-Ray, HD-DVD) to the obscure (Coral, the Broadcast Flag, DVB-CPCM). These specifications are hammered out by multiparty consortia, with oversight from the entertainment industry. I've attended my share of these meetings and "oversight" is putting it mildly--the entertainment industry runs those consortia, shouting where necessary, threatening to withhold content from the platform, even (in the case of the Broadcast Flag), threatening to complain to powerful congressional chairmen.

We are supposed to believe the same industry that controls other standards with ruthless efficiency is rendered powerless by Apple and it's legions of locked-in customers? The music industry has never shied away from stranding its listeners with dead-end technologies (remember vinyl, 8-tracks, and digital cassettes?), and they wouldn't balk at doing it to iPod owners either if they had any other options. The fact that they continue to work, grudgingly, with Apple further discredits his claims about the power of lock-in. If the DRM mattered (that is to say, if its ability to play copy-protected major-label content drove iPod sales) then the major labels could end the iPod's hegemony in an instant by refusing to participate in the ITMS, but it is the other way around: people love iPods, and because of that, they put up with some DRM on their music. Doctorow admits as much, without acknowledging that it undermines his other claims about Apple's lock-in.

What's truly odd (and infuriating) about this article is that it contains the germ of a legitimate argument that is if not altogether new, at least worthy of being repeated: namely that DRM schemes really benefit nobody. However, by insisting on making this a critique not of DRM generally but of Apple DRM, and trying to cast Apple as a monopolistic monster that "abuse[s] its customers and its partners," Doctorow not only distracts attention from the true issue, he invites, much like the current flap over a supposed hacking of a MacBook via WiFi, negative speculation on his motives.