Steve Jobs, Slayer of DRM

Courtesy of Mac Rumours comes this memo from Steve Jobs on FairPlay, the Digital Rights Management (DRM) anti-piracy technology with which Apple encodes downloaded music. DRM limits where and how digital music can be played. Ideally, such measures prevent pirates from freely sharing illegal music – but legitimate owners of DRM-encoded music are also hindered. FairPlay has the further stipulation that buyers of iTunes music are locked into using an iPod if they want their music to be portable – a limitation that has likely served Apple quite well. Their success with the combination iTunes + iPod model is the envy of the industry, and other digital music player manufacturers want a larger piece of that pie. Or is it Apple that's getting greedy?

Last year, Apple encountered legal pressure in France when Apple tried to open its iTunes store there. Now, Norway is attempting to declare DRM outright illegal. By insisting on applying DRM, Apple finds it is limiting its global market.

In his memo, Steve Jobs explains why and how DRM came into existence, and three routes it could take from here. Ultimately, he suggests that DRM is insisted upon not by Apple, but by its constituents:

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.

iPod owners and iTunes users have often felt that DRM is more of a political gesture than an effective practice; there are simple and sundry methods to strip a purchased song of its DRM. But by making the effort to protect the contents of the iTunes Music Store, Apple has a token to show the recording companies with whom it contracts to stock its digital shelves.

There's a different standard of store that offers all its music – including the Beatles' – without any DRM whatsoever: the Brick-and-Mortar Store. Pop any music CD into your computer, and you can create a digital audio file based on the MP3 compression format, which is compatible with almost every platform and player.

Perhaps iTunes is headed in that same direction. Physical CDs have given consumers unrestricted access to music for decades; Jobs thinks it's time for the now-proven online business model to grant its clientele that same freedom.

And if it does, who's to gain: Apple? Norway? Music studios? Artists? Consumers? Or pirates?

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