Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Power and The Meaning of the Apple-EMI Deal...

Yesterday a landmark deal was announced in which Apple has convinced one of the major record labels, EMI, to start selling its music without copy protection (aka - DRM encryption). iTunes will now sell songs from the EMI label for either 1) the same 99 cents with DRM (making it impossible to play the song on any device other than an iPod), or else 2) the slightly more expensive $1.29 price without DRM (play them anywhere) and at 256kbps (better audio quality).

The online world is completely abuzz over this story. Some are discussing how this is the last-ditch effort of the dying record industry to deal with ever-greater revenue losses, while others are focusing on how this deal signals a victory for Apple's AAC format over Microsoft's WMA format in the battle over standards. One article even goes so far as to say that Steve Jobs convincing the music industry to sell music without copy protection is a lesson in how to wield power in the digital age.

But let's analytically dissect this a bit further. What else does the Apple-EMI deal mean for the rest of us?

First of all, music will be free. Actually, this needs to be clarified. To borrow the standard line from the Open Source movement, this refers to "free" as in "free speech", not "free beer". Removing copy protection from music will allow people to buy a song on iTunes and play it on their computer, iPod, Zune, or any other MP3 player (which was impossible two days ago). Your music collection will now be interoperable, and in that sense, once you buy a song you are free to play it wherever and however you wish.

However, YOU STILL HAVE TO BUY THE SONG! Removing DRM copy protection does not change copyright law. The deal, therefore, represents little more than the music industry (finally) succumbing to the demands of their consumers, whose rights have been re-asserted.

Second, as for the techie conversation over standards-setting, EMI's choice to use the AAC format as opposed to Microsoft's WMA format may indeed prove to be an enormous gallstone for Microsoft to pass. However, this has less to do with Steve Jobs' power and a whole lot more to do with the MP3 patent lawsuit last month which raised a cloud of uncertainty over the MP3 format. Consequently, everyone involved in the music business has been seeking alternatives such as AAC, simply to avoid patent-infringing lawsuits.

Finally, what is the bigger lesson to be wrought from all of this? One could argue that this is a triumph of blogosphere hacktivists, who have been relentless in their efforts to rid the world of DRM, over the corporate multi-billion dollar record industry. Or perhaps one could argue that it is indeed a last-ditch attempt by a dying industry with an outdated business model in their desperation to try ANYTHING different. Or maybe Steve Jobs really is the Hammurabi of digital media.

It seems to me that DRM and copy protection schemes aren't going anywhere, and this debate is far from over. The classic battle lines have been drawn for Digital Age conflict - those who seek to protect content and restrict access to material through closed proprietary means versus those who seek openness, transparency, and the advancement of culture.

So let's be crystal clear. What is at issue is not simply the downloading of music. It's a fundamental debate over the definition and limits of ownership.


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