John Watson

Hello! My name is Watson and I’m a freelance web developer. I create web sites using the latest tech for clients of all sizes. Contact me and I’ll help you build your dream project.

DRM is bad

Spengler: There's something very important I forgot to tell you.

Venkman: What?

Spengler: Don't cross the streams.

Venkman: Why?

Spengler: It would be bad.

Venkman: I'm fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing. What do you mean, "bad"?

Spengler: Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.

Stantz: Total protonic reversal.

Venkman: Right. That's "bad." Okay. All right. Important safety tip. Thanks, Egon.

—Ghostbusters

Unless you’ve been paying close attention, you probably didn’t notice that Apple threatened to destroy your iTunes music collection unless the Copyright Royalty Board (http://www.loc.gov/crb/) (CRB) froze rates. In a nutshell, the CRB ruled on a proposal by the National Music Publishers Association (http://www.nmpa.org/) to raise royalties which would cut into Apple’s margins, possibly forcing them to raise prices above $0.99 per track. In response, Apple threatened to close down the iTunes music store. A deal was struck last week and rates remained unchanged—for now (First Royalty Rates Set for Digital Music - NY Times).

If the iTunes music store had gone dark, you would’ve lost the ability to transfer your DRM-burdened music to new computers and devices. The only way to continue to play the music you thought you owned after you upgraded your computer or iPod would be to burn them to CD and then re-rip them in a non-DRM format like MP3 (and take a quality hit during the process).

It’s reasonable to question whether Apple would have actually shut down iTunes. Who knows? Lots of people think they would never shut it down because it would hurt sales of iPods, the real reason the iTunes store exists in the first place. But remember this: Steve Jobs does not love you. Apple will shut down the store the minute there is no more profit in it. In a letter to the CRB, Apple wrote: “Apple has repeatedly made clear that it is in this business to make money and most likely would not continue to operate iTS [iTunes Store] if it were no longer possible to do so profitably.” You know, customers be damned.

But the point isn’t whether they would have shut down the store. The point is that they could have—and they will eventually. Apple essentially held all of its loyal customers for ransom unless it got what it wanted. Apple gambled with your music collection. Does it matter if they won this time? If you buy DRM-burdened music (or anything else) you will get burned eventually.

Just ask anybody who “bought” music from MSN (Microsoft to nuke MSN Music DRM keys - Ars Technica), Yahoo! (Yahoo Music going dark, taking keys with it - Ars Technica) or Wal-Mart (Wal*Mart shutting down DRM server - BoingBoing). All three music stores were shut down revealing the truth about billions of dollars worth of DRM music purchases: they are really just rentals. Think Apple will never close the iTunes music store? Really? You expect Apple to keep licensing your music to you forever?

Lots of folks are breathing a sigh of relief and claiming that the crisis has been averted. The truth is that the crisis has simply been delayed. Apple has been spinning this so that they look like they’re fighting the evil music industry to keep prices low; but they’ve been keeping pretty quiet about their willingness to throw every iTunes customer under the bus to do it.