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DRM bad. Apple good?

I think DRM (Digital Rights Management), is bad. „Bad“ as in „useless waste of money, time and energy“, as in „will never work“. And „bad“ as in „not right“ (for a more detailed view on things, please refer to this excellent speech by Cory Doctorow again).

Since I am not naive enough to believe that the research departments of Sony or Microsoft browse Spreeblick and other publications opposing DRM, read it, think about it again and stop the development of DRM immediately, we have to face the fact that DRM will not die fast. It is here, it will be integrated in all mainstream media applications and hardware and it will only go away after it failed on a big scale, just as CD copy protection’s technical and promotional failures already made the first record companies stop using it.

So even though I believe that it will indeed fail, for now we have to accept (not tolerate) the fact that DRM is here. This is not to say that it shouldn’t be opposed or even fought. But until we finally see portals that make sense and money with the services they offer, not with the data that happens to contain sound and since can afford to refrain from using DRM, there simply is no legal way of buying music online without having to deal with some implementation of Digital Rights Management. Sad. But true.

So why, you may ask yourself, do I like Apple’s iTunes Music Store so much, which has DRM (though Apple cleverly calls it „FairPlay“) integrated?

It is not because FairPlay can be hacked.
It is because I don’t feel the need to.

With the implementation of FairPlay, Apple listened to both sides of the game, the producers and the consumers, and took the best currently possible route for the both them, incidentally doing an important, heavy and seemingly very well done job in convincing record execs of that route.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to say that Apple is Greenpeace (hell, even Greenpeace isn’t Greenpeace anymore…) or that their motives are less capitalistic than those of other companies – I am very much aware of the fact that Apple has stock holders to satisfy and that Steve Jobs is no saint – but they accepted the needs and wants of consumers and took them very serious, something that still happens very rarely in today’s economy and that wasn’t happening at all in the world of record companies until now (BMG has announced their plans of lowering CD prices the day after iTMS went online in Europe).

While you get the impression that by using DRM, companies like Sony mainly want to reverse their past mistakes, restrict the rights that consumers legally have and make sure that you’ll only use their proprietary file formats, Apple basically gives me all I really need.

Even though Apple uses AAC as a sound file format, MP3s work perfectly in iTunes and on your iPod, and with a plug-in you can use Ogg Vorbis files as well (MP3 on a Sony player? No go. You need to re-encode to ATRAC first). I can play the music I bought in the iTunes Music Store on five different machines (which is enough for 90% of all users, I guess) and by being able to „de-authorize“ machines, it will always be five machines, even if I buy a new Mac or PC. I can burn it on CDs as often as I want (a five year old can figure out how to deal with the „burn the same playlist up to seven times“ limit if you really need more than that), I can give away my mixes or make a backup copy for my car. I can now, thanks to AirportExpress, even stream my music wireless from the computer to my stereo.

And I can put the music I bought onto my portable… uh-oh, here comes the catch… iPod. And iPod only.

Now, even though the iPod is the sexiest portable music player anyway and I can’t see why anyone would want to buy any other device, the truth is that this is a limitation. Maybe one day Apple will release their API (or whatever the correct technical term is) to third parties, therefore making it possible for other devices to play iTS files. But let’s stay realistic, this won’t happen too quickly.

„Hah!“, I can hear you scream, „Gotcha! See? They’re only doing this to sell iPods! Apple sucks!“

Indeed, they’re doing it to sell iPods. Not even Macs (since iTMS and the iPod work on PCs as well), but iPods. For now.

Apple, the company that got laughed at so often by making the „mistake“ to not license their operating system to third party hardware companies and thus losing the main market to Microsoft (but at the same time maintaining a quality control and software integration that MS can only dream of), actually invested millions of dollars, built a free, kick-ass music and video (!) player software with an integrated online music store that works perfect and fast and lets anyone (even non-registered visitors) browse and pre-listen the songs in high quality easily… to sell their products!

And that’s the beauty of it. Apple appears to be the first company to have invested in cultural and social as well as in technical research, or they might at least be the first to have understood the results and to have drawn the correct conclusions from those results. They seem to care. They seem to have understood that file sharing and p-2-p was never about stealing in the first place. It is about convenience, innovation, fun, community and progress.

Today, you simply can’t survive on selling music anymore. The days of record companies are as over as those of pure record stores. Why? There are no more records!

You can, however, survive on selling services, hardware, a community and a brand surrounding music, the most present, most emotionally filled, most portable and most individual cultural good we have today. And that is what Apple is doing. Selling the music might barely cover the cost of technically putting the songs into iTMS, but having iTunes, iTMS and the iPod put Apple on a map that Microsoft is till trying to unfold.

So is DRM good after all? No, it isn’t. What is good is a company that manages to innovate, to be brave and to stay fair to customers while keeping the shareholders happy. I buy products of those companies and I don’t feel cheated.

And I accept their version of DRM in those products. For now.

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