DRM's demise just the beginning

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Two months ago, when I imagined a world without DRM, I had no reason to believe that such a world would be upon us quite so quickly. But today, with the announcement that EMI would be bringing its catalog to iTunes free of soul-sucking DRM, it seems that that future may be just around the corner. While this is great news for anybody who likes music, there’s still a ways to go before that DRM-free world is a reality.

Don’t kid yourself: as exciting as it is that high-quality, DRM-free tracks will be available at the iTunes Store in May, all this really does is level the playing field between iTunes and brick-and-mortar retailers. As Steve Jobs himself pointed out, 90% of the music sold today (read: every piece of music sold on CD) is sold in high-quality audio with no digital rights management. The iTunes Store is, in essence, finally giving us what we’ve been always able to buy on CD, just easier and more quickly. In other words, the future is finally catching up with the past.

Am I looking a gift horse in the mouth? Maybe, but I’m also not going to sink to my knees and thank the record companies for finally deigning not to treat digital music consumers like second-class citizens. This is what we should have had four years ago when the iTunes Store was launched.

If you truly want to look at the future of digital music sales, look no further than last week’s announcement of iTunes’s new “ Complete My Album ” feature. Buy a single and get credit towards the full album? That’s something that never would have been possible with the old model of music sales. It’s innovative, it’s new, and and it establishes iTunes as something wholly different than your average music retailer. But there are still some barriers to hurdle before iTunes is fully on par with conventional retailers like Wal-Mart and Amazon. Let’s take a look.

Album-only tracks: If you spend enough time in the iTunes Store, you’ll sooner or later come across tracks that are only available as part of an entire album. The track-listing is grayed out and the option to buy the song by itself is nowhere to be seen. Oftentimes these songs are longer or more popular than the other tracks on the albums, but all this does is undermine the most basic tenet of the iTunes Store: one track for $0.99. The album-only tracks must be freed from their digital incarceration.

Partial albums: The converse of album-only tracks are albums that are incomplete, lacking one or more songs that are available on the full CD version, but not as digital downloads. Sometimes this is due to rights issues; it happens commonly in international versions of the iTunes Store. But it’s like going into the CD store and buying an album, only to have the clerk open it up and very precisely scratch out a couple of tracks. How inclined would you be to go back to that store? Let’s not turn the iTunes Store into a ghetto; make the entire albums available.

More DRM-free music: Having EMI onboard the DRM-free train will go a long way, but there are still three major labels that are keeping their music locked down tight. And what about those artists, such as Barenaked Ladies, that have reputedly approached Apple to sell their music DRM-free? With the infrastructure to make such sales in place, will Apple now bring these other acts into the fold? Steve Jobs estimated that half of iTunes’s catalog would be available DRM-free by the end of the year. Let’s hope that’s an understatement of Intel-transition proportions. It might be optimistic to hope for a completely DRM-free catalog by next year, but let’s shoot for next summer.

Movies and TV Shows: Ay, there’s the rub. When asked at the EMI press conference whether he would use his influence with Disney to push for DRM-free video content, Jobs said that the situation with video was inherently different from music. Unlike music, video isn’t available in primarily DRM-free formats. DVDs are copy-protected, as were VHS cassettes before them. And while that’s true, it doesn’t mean we wouldn’t like to see a change in that policy. What’s holding us back from ripping our DVDs like we rip our CDs? The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, for one, which makes it a crime to bypass copy protection. Would I like to see Steve take on the DMCA? You betcha. And while Jobs’s status as the single largest invidividual stockholder in Disney doesn’t make him a one-man policy-making machine, consider that it does give him considerable clout, and that’s all Steve Jobs has ever really needed to make change happen.

When Jobs first wrote his open letter on DRM, many accused him of being an insincere, self-serving, opportunistic businessman who was merely pandering to consumers, pretending to be on their side. While Steve Jobs is a businessman, his success has always depended on creating and selling products that consumers want and, more importantly, that he believes in . And if Steve Jobs believes in a world without DRM, that future probably isn’t very off.

Dan Moren is the author of Macworld.com's Gadgetbox column and co-editor of the MacUser.com blog.

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