DRM: Why Apple Has it Wrong

by Devanshu Mehta

A few days ago, a Janet Meyer article on “Apple Matters”:http://www.applematters.com/index.php/section/comments/is-big-brother-on-your-ipod/ sparked a phenomenal discussion for and against Apple’s DRM policies. If you are not aware, Apple has a *Digital Rights Management* [DRM] system that “protects” the music it sells from the iTunes music store: it determines where you can play it, how you can play it, how many machines you can play it on and so on. It is proprietary, so if Apple controls the online music market, Apple also automatically controls how, where, why, when we listen to music we buy from them.

To cut a long story short, Janet was making the point that Apple may have a closed music format but as long as consumers have no trouble with it, consumers have a choice to buy CDs instead, the market will decide what is best.

Ah yes, the market. That all-knowing, all-seeing, all-singing, all-dancing market. It knows. In a _perfect_ society with fully informed consumers who have _true_ choices, the market knows. Elections would be marvellous with fully informed voters with _true_ choices as well.

Sorry, I was dreaming for a second.

In reality, the consumer is not informed and only a false choice. The comments that followed went from DRM to politics to progressive-vs-conservative to Iran to freedom to civil liberties to intellectual property to… you get the picture. Early on in the discussion, I chimed in with the following:

The trouble with Apple’s DRM and DRM in general is multiple-fold; I will go through them as objectively as possible.

* You are correct, everyone has a choice to not buy from iTunes or other DRM-protected services. But in the future, all music may be digital and all of it DRM protected. All these battles (of the FSF, EFF, etc.) are to make sure that we are not kicking ourselves in that future.
* DRM controls how you use what you have bought. In the past, this has rarely been the case- if you bought a book, the publisher did not control where you read it or how often. If you bought a CD or record, the music company had no control on which CD player you listened to it on or if a friend borrowed it.
* Apple users should understand this problem the best; these are tactics that Microsoft has used for decades to lock in their customers. Their proprietary document formats make it tough for people to switch from MS Office and their behavior with IE is legendary. With iTunes and the iPod, Apple is exhibiting similar behavior of control through monopoly which can be troublesome for the consumers in the future. Your argument that “if you don’t like it, you have a choice not to buy it” is fine, until you try to apply it to MS products. Most people don’t have a choice any more- price, lock-in, compatibility and inertia leaves MS in control. The issue is to make sure that the choices remain forever.
* Privacy issues never seem like a big deal until they add up. Simple listening habits on their own are fine. Apple doing it is fine. Google knowing a lot about us is fine. The NSA reading this message and my mail is fine. And all of this adds up to a society where it is impossible to avoid your information being available to the highest bidder.
* Besides that, privacy is more fundamental. I do not want anyone to know anything about me unless it is *absolutely essential* and even then only on my terms.
* Finally, you cited CDs as a viable choice. Not so. Many manufacturers of CDs are rolling DRM-like controls in to CDs so that they may control what you do with it and how many times. The software they include on CDs has been harmful, restrictive and goes against how people have consumed media for ages in the past.

For more
* “Visit the EFF site on DRM and Intellectual Property rights”:http://www.eff.org/IP/DRM/
* “Cory Doctorow’s Speech to Microsoft on DRM”:http://www.craphound.com/msftdrm.txt

People must push back on every new restriction on our privacy and rights, because that is the only way these debates will occur.