Friday, February 16, 2007

Response to Steve Jobs' Thoughts on Music...

Last week, Steve Jobs of Apple released a public essay which some are claiming should already be canonized among the most important pieces of Internet literature - his thoughts on digital technology and the future of the music industry.

For several years now, technologists have criticized Apple for using closed Digital Rights Management (DRM) software with the music it sells on iTunes. This DRM software encrypts the music files to prevent piracy, however it also makes it so that music purchased from iTunes can't be played on digital devices made by companies other than Apple. Critics, such as myself, have pointed out repeatedly that this locks in consumers to one product line, namely iPods, for the rest of their lives, and is a clear violation of existing consumer rights.

So in a rather stunning move, Steve Jobs not only has come out and acknowledged this situation, but has even called for the abolition of the entire current system. "Imagine a world where every online store sells DRM-free music encoded in open licensable formats. 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."

On the surface, Jobs is agreeing with his critics. He is explicitly asserting that the future of music is one of interoperability between music stores and players, unhindered by DRM. It's about time. So why isn't he doing anything about it? Jobs seems ideally situated to be a catalyst for change - really there is no one in a greater position of power on the issue. In his essay, he places the blame on the record companies. "If the big four music companies would license Apple their music without the requirement that it be protected with a DRM, we would switch to selling only DRM-free music on our iTunes store."

The conspiracy-theorists have already gone on record as to say that Jobs is doing this strictly as a negotiating strategy. As Apple's original deal with the record companies is set to expire, they believe Jobs is publicly taking this anti-DRM stance simply to frighten those companies into submission; renewing the current licensing arrangement. Jobs cannot legitimately place the blame on the record companies. Blogger Thomas Hawk is right to point out that, "at this point if the music labels dropped iTunes there would be outcry and backlash of massive proportion... The labels are too far immersed into iTunes as the the leading seller of online music at this point to back out now." In other words, it is Steve Jobs, not the record companies, who hold the cards.

Hopefully Jobs truly is sincere in his sentiment of a DRM-free future. In the meantime, whether this essay is a negotiating ploy or not, Jobs has thus far utterly failed to show the kind of vision and leadership he is famous for. Steve Jobs is in a greater position to bring about change in the digital music industry than any other human being, and his failure to leverage this unique position is either a sign of cowardice or insincerity.

Until the situation changes, alternative models do exist, and people can download legal DRM-free music to their hearts content.


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