The iPhone and "crippleware" claims

Writing for the New York Times , Randall Stross opens his Want an iPhone? Beware the iHandcuffs (registration required) with this:

STEVE JOBS, Apple’s showman nonpareil, provided the first public glimpse of the iPhone last week—gorgeous, feature-laden and pricey. While following the master magician’s gestures, it was easy to overlook a most disappointing aspect: like its slimmer iPod siblings, the iPhone’s music-playing function will be limited by factory-installed “crippleware.”

In this case he defines “crippleware” as Apple’s FairPlay digital rights management scheme—the technology that prevents you from playing media purchased from the iTunes Store on a portable player other than the iPod and, eventually, the iPhone.

Feel free to read the entire piece (though you might wish to ignore the irony of having to register with the NYT in order to do so), but I’m happy to sum up the main points here:

  • When you buy songs from the iTunes Store you can play them only on the iPod.
  • You will always have to buy iPods because your iTunes won’t play on anyone else’s player.
  • Microsoft is guilty of this too with its PlaysForSure copy-protection standard and the new Zune Marketplace scheme.
  • Apple claims that DRM is required by the major music companies as a condition for sale at the iTunes Store yet eMusic manages to sell unprotected music from the non-majors to the tune of 100 million downloads.
  • Nettwerk Music Group artists, Barenaked Ladies, Sarah McLachlan, and Avril Lavigne offer unprotected content to eMusic. That same content is copy-protected on iTunes.
  • Apple didn’t return the author’s call.
  • 9,800 labels are willing to offer unprotected content on eMusic. Only four labels—the majors—do not.
  • The head of Nettwerk suggests that the major labels would drop copy protection in order to “break the monopoly of Apple.” Proof was offered in the form of Yahoo Music’s Dave Goldberg, who has been a proponent of selling music in an unprotected format.
  • In the next five or ten years, copy protection battles will be over—we’ll all be using wireless broadband subscription services because such a system already exists in South Korea.

Let’s go point-by-point, shall we?

When you buy songs from the iTunes Store you can play them only on the iPod.

Or in your car, or on your home stereo, or on any device capable of playing an audio CD. Or via the iPod—through a transmitter to a radio or with any one of the countless portable and not-so-portable speakers on the market.

Or, as the author points out, you can certainly burn your iTunes tracks to disc and then rerip them in an unprotected form and copy them to the portable music player of your choosing.

You will always have to buy iPods because your iTunes won’t play on anyone else’s player.

See the final sentence of the last point. I’ve moved a number of iTunes-purchased tracks to my SanDisk Sansa player.

Microsoft is guilty of this too with its PlaysForSure copy-protection standard and the new Zune Marketplace scheme.

It is, as was Sony and just about any other entity interested in successfully selling music online. Note that PlaysForSure and Zune are even more restrictive than iTunes.

Apple claims that DRM is required by the major music companies as a condition for sale at the iTunes Store yet eMusic manages to sell unprotected music from the non-majors to the tune of 100 million downloads.

Apple’s claim is undoubtedly true. The major record labels are pro-protection. Hell, Doug Morris, the CEO of Universal Music, believes all iPod owners are pirates. And yes, this is the same guy who went after MTV and VH1 for playing music videos—videos that promoted the sale of CDs—for “free.” What are the chances he’s going to leap at an unprotected model?

As for eMusic, how many of those tracks were purchased? I assume that just about every eMusic subscriber has taken advantage of the service’s offer of 25 free downloads. (I’m just as sure that a number of people fail to download their allotment of tracks each month, thereby giving eMusic money for nothing.)

Nettwerk Music Group artists, Barenaked Ladies, Sarah McLachlan, and Avril Lavigne offer unprotected content to eMusic. That same content is copy-protected on iTunes.

The “minors” are doing what they can to increase sales. If selling their catalogs to both eMusic and iTunes helps, you bet they’ll do it.

Apple didn’t return the author’s call.

Dude, it’s Apple! Responding to questions—both comfortable and not so—is not in the company’s DNA. I’d be just as happy as you if Apple answered my questions, but Apple is nothing if not secretive.

9,800 labels are willing to offer unprotected content on eMusic. Only four labels—the majors—do not.

Because the four labels control the vast majority of big-name artists, they can do pretty much what they like. Those other 9,800 labels don’t have the kind of juice the majors do and must compromise in order to make money. One of those compromises is selling music both to iTunes and in an unprotected form to eMusic.

The head of Nettwerk suggests that the major labels would drop copy protection in order to “break the monopoly of Apple.” Proof was offered in the form of Yahoo Music’s Dave Goldberg, who has been a proponent of selling music in an unprotected format.

See the previous Doug Morris example. This is not a guy who’s going to offer his product in an unprotected form. And if Nettwerk’s boss finds Apple’s “monopoly” so distasteful perhaps he should put his money where his mouth is and refuse to sell his stuff on iTunes—denying Apple his artists’ work might be a step in the right direction. As for Mr. Goldberg, would he offer this same plan if Yahoo Music owned the online music retail space? It’s easy to make such brave statements when you’re the little guy looking to take market share away from the big guy.

In the next five or ten years, copy protection battles will be over—we’ll all be using wireless broadband subscription services because a successful form of such a system already exists in South Korea.

I like subscription services, but a lot of other people don’t. You want to talk iHandcuffs, strike up a conversation with the South Korean who failed to pay his subscription fee to SK Telecom and lost his music collection in the bargain. Let’s not kid ourselves, music obtained through subscriptions is as protected as iTunes content.

I’m not certain that DRM is a necessary evil but I’m pretty darned sure that simply stripping music of its DRM and offering it via the current digital-download or subscription model is a non-starter. Find a way to satisfy both the music industry and consumers and you’ve made a good start. Currently, iTunes, with its 2 billion downloads, seems to have made that start.

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