Donut Age: America's Donut Magazine

Jobs throws down over DRM

Well, this is interesting. There's an open letter by Steve Jobs, dated today, on the Apple website. It is simply titled "Thoughts on Music." It may, however, be a landmark moment in the history of Digital Rights Management. In the letter, Jobs takes on the various calls that have been made for Apple to "open up" the iPod+iTunes franchise. After a brief history lesson on how we got to the current state of affairs (namely that the "big four" music labels were dragged kicking and screaming into digital distribution and only with promise of DRM protection), Steve gets down to business with refuting the criticisms that have been leveled against Apple's successful combination.

  • On the idea that iPods "lock in" consumers to using the ITMS (or vice versa): Jobs notes that the iPod already plays two open music formats (MP3 and unprotected AAC). He then pulls out the familiar figure of 22 songs/iPod having been purchased through ITMS and notes that on the most popular iPod (the 4GB nano), that represents less than 3% of the music on the device, and so
    Its hard to believe that just 3% of the music on the average iPod is enough to lock users into buying only iPods in the future.  And since 97% of the music on the average iPod was not purchased from the iTunes store, iPod users are clearly not locked into the iTunes store to acquire their music.
    I consider that 22 songs figure to be a red herring (since it is derived by ignoring both iPods that have gone out of service and the ability to legally share protected songs to multiple iPods), but the larger point is still valid. No one is filling their iPod exclusively or even predominantly with ITMS content, so there is by definition no "lock in" in either direction (an argument I made some months back in response to Cory Doctorow's muddled attack on Apple's DRM).
  • On the demand that Apple license FairPlay to other companies so they can play ITMS content, he notes that the nature of DRM is that its inner workings must be secret and licensing FairPlay would mean sharing those secrets and therefore endangering the DRM.
    Apple has concluded that if it licenses FairPlay to others, it can no longer guarantee to protect the music it licenses from the big four music companies. Perhaps this same conclusion contributed to Microsoft’s recent decision to switch their emphasis from an “open” model of licensing their DRM to others to a “closed” model of offering a proprietary music store, proprietary jukebox software and proprietary players.
    Again, Jobs may be over-dramatizing the dangers of licensing DRM, but the basic point is true. Demands for secure DRM and interoperability are, to use John Gruber's formulation, "mutually exclusive."

So far there's nothing remarkable. Jobs has, predictably, defended a status quo that works rather well for Apple. What's interesting is that he doesn't stop there. Jobs opens door number three instead.

The third alternative is to abolish DRMs entirely. Imagine a world where every online store sells DRM-free music encoded in open licensable formats. In such a world, any player can play music purchased from any store, and any store can sell music which is playable on all players. This is clearly the best alternative for consumers, and Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat. If the big four music companies would license Apple their music without the requirement that it be protected with a DRM, we would switch to selling only DRM-free music on our iTunes store. Every iPod ever made will play this DRM-free music.
Just a couple weeks ago, a blogger at O'Reilly's Mac DevCenter suggested that it was Apple that was forcing DRM on the music labels. That rang false to me, but the author's repeated insistence in the comments thread seemed to indicate that he'd seen some real documentation that Apple had resisted putting unprotected music on the ITMS. Today's announcement, I think, puts an end to that line of criticism. Jobs has publicly and unambiguously challenged the music industry to finally give up its futile demands for DRM and has promised to put DRM-free content on iTunes. Period.

I'm not naive enough to believe Jobs is doing this out of the kindness of his heart (especially when Apple is facing a European lawsuit over the integration of iTunes and the iPod), but regardless of the motives, he has put the major labels on the spot. They can either take his challenge and kill DRM forever, or they can slink off into their corners and put away all their doubletalk about "openness." Either way, we will know where we stand, and we will have Steve Jobs to thank for it.

Update (2/8/07): Predictably, these "thoughts" have prompted plenty of reactions: ranging from suggestions that Apple is all talk and no action (Norway's Torgeir Waterhouse), to accusations that Jobs if being "irresponsible" in calling for such changes (Microsoft's Jason Reindorp), to deliberate misunderstanding of the whole essay (the RIAA). Three responses worth reading are MacWorld's editorial, which makes the important, but oft-forgotten point that most customers don't automatically become thieves if you give them the chance; the Economist's editorial, which succinctly conclusion, "Mr Jobs’s argument, in short, is transparently self-serving. It also happens to be right"; and John Gruber's analysis, which delves into a variety of interesting consequences of this announcement for video,

Acknowledgements: Original link to Jobs's essay via Dan Dickinson. Additional links via Daring Fireball, The Macalope, Ars Technica's Infinite Loop blog, and probably someone else I've forgotten (sorry).