A few days ago, Apple CEO Steve Jobs made waves with an essay on Apple's website called "Thoughts on Music." In it he voiced concern about digital rights management technologies (DRM) that are used in music distribution (such as Apple's iTunes) to protect against piracy. They also impose significant controls on what users may do with music files, though, and their use is becoming increasingly controversial.
Surprisingly, Jobs called for the abolition of DRM. "Imagine a world where every online store sells DRM-free music encoded in open licensable formats," he wrote. "In such a world, any player can play music purchased from any store, and any store can sell music which is playable on all players. This is clearly the best alternative for consumers, and Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat."
We thought we should check in with Tarleton Gillespie to see what this might bode for the future of DRM and digital media. Gillespie teaches information policy and mass media at Cornell University, and his first book, Wired Shut: Copyright and the Shape of Digital Culture, will be published this spring. Here are his thoughts:
In 1993, studio producer and ex-punk rocker Steve Albini wrote a now infamous essay called "The Problem with Music," in which he laid out in stinging detail the real economics of the typical recording contract. When he revealed that a band that signs with a major label, receives a quarter million dollar advance and sells a quarter million copies of their album, ends up earning just over $12,000 dollars for their efforts, while the label takes in $710,000 for helping them do it, the critique was particularly potent because it came from inside the industry itself.
Steve Jobs' "Thoughts on Music," posted to the Apple website on February 6th, is offered up a bit more delicately, but the statement is just as significant for the clout of its author. The Apple CEO suggests that it is time for the major music labels to give up on imposing copy protection on their digital music. This is copy protection, mind you, that Jobs has helped enforce and make commonplace via the Apple iTunes store -- though if we are to believe Jobs, that was entirely an obligation imposed by the labels as part of the privilege of selling their music. He notes that copy protection, or "digital rights management" (DRM), has failed to slow the peer-to-peer file-trading of music, has irritated customers by slowing the move to digital services, is and always will be vulnerable to hackers, and is meaningless when most popular music is still purchased on CD, which (generally) includes no copy protections. Instead, the labels should give in, allow Apple and others to sell music in unprotected formats like mp3, and look to profit from the flood of distribution opportunities that would emerge.
Jobs is by no means the first to say this. Even the major labels are slowly beginning to admit that the DRM strategy – at least as a solution to piracy – is not all it's cracked up to be. Nevertheless, it is remarkable that Jobs is saying it, as it has thus far been very much in Apple's best interest to support the labels' copy protection fetish, at least to a degree; the phenomenal popularity of the iPod is testimonial to that. Jobs, of course, is not known for walking the company line. But Apple finds itself in a tricky position, and this is the clear subtext of Jobs' "Thoughts": courts and legislatures around Europe are beginning to challenge iTunes' copy protection not as a copyright strategy, but a means of restraining trade. The copy protection scheme forced on Apple by the big bad labels also helps them sell iPods, and helps keep iTunes in a position of market dominance over Napster 2, Microsoft, and Walmart, whose downloads won't port to the popular device. Now that they may be legally compelled to license their FairPlay copy protection to their competitors, it's suddenly in Apple's interest to call for no DRM at all, and bet the ranch instead on the iPod's appealing design, devoted fan base, and on the market position it has already managed to secure. This, the ability to parse and channel and govern commercial transactions, to tie content to a platform so users will buy both from the same vendor, to track use in order to render advertising to match, to put a price on every interaction with the content imaginable, is precisely why DRM has survived and flourished despite little evidence that it curbs piracy -- and may very well persist despite Jobs' manifesto.