iTunes losing DRM is exception to the rule at Apple

Apple says they’ll drop the DRM on all iTunes tracks. Other music distributors (some which sell the same tracks as iTunes) have already done this. Dropping DRM on iTunes tracks would be less onerous than the current arrangement where some iTunes tracks still have DRM. But how do DRM-free iTunes tracks compare with Magnatune? What does that mean for you as a music listener? Should you do business with organizations that treats you badly?

What is DRM?

DRM are technical schemes that are designed to restrict what computer users can do with their computers. The acronym “DRM” means different things depending on the frame of reference with which you approach these restrictions. When viewed from the perspective of the user, DRM focuses on what users are not allowed to do with the work. Hence, from the user’s perspective “DRM” means “digital restrictions management”. Publishers who seek to limit what users can do think of “DRM” as “digital rights management” because publishers don’t want you to think about restrictions are in place or their effect on the many users these restrictions are designed to disenfranchise.

There’s no limit to what can be restricted by DRM schemes (anymore than there’s a limit to the kinds of computer programs programmers can write or images artists can sketch on paper) and one is not better off to understand freedom-related issues like DRM in terms of specific restrictions. But to give a few examples, DRM schemes include methods of stopping people from running arbitrary programs, installing software on computers, playing media files, restricting seeking around in movies (say, to jump to a particular scene without first watching ads), preventing playing movies DVDs in certain DVD players, and reducing how you can use media (editing and sharing playlists, for example).

Without DRM, you could decide how many times you wanted to burn copies to physical media, make useful copies for yourself that you could play back later, skip around in the file without restriction when you play the file back, or play from any device capable of reading the file. Without DRM, there’s no danger that technological restrictions will be imposed on you later; the files will not become less playable later on. With DRM-free media there’s no need to invoke special programs do these things. Your purchases are truly yours to play as you wish anywhere at any time. With DRM, the publisher can limit all of these things and more depending only on how much effort they’re willing to put into implementing such restrictions.

So when we hear that Apple is dropping DRM on their iTunes tracks, we should put this in perspective not just for Apple users but anyone who enjoys any kind of media. We should better understand what the alternatives are so we don’t step into a well-advertised trap.

Magnatune and other music distributors have been doing business without DRM since day 1. Magnatune tracks have no DRM, so there’s no need to strip DRM away.

Helping artists

Furthermore, when you buy a track from some distributors a significant part of the money goes directly to the artist (Magnatune splits the fee with the artist). iTunes sells tracks from artists under restrictive contracts with major labels. These contracts are known to put artists in debt without copyright any recordings.

Magnatune licenses the tracks they sell. Magnatune enters into a non-exclusive deal with the artist, so the copyright stays with the artist who is then free to license the work differently (including commercially) to anyone else. And when you get tracks from Magnatune you can get them under a license that lets you legally share those tracks with others, no harassment. Very few tracks from iTunes are licensed to share and the RIAA’s legal exploits are rather well-known.

If you buy tracks from Magnatune and give them your email address you can always get replacement copies of the tracks you bought. Apple will sell you proprietary software that destroys your audio collection and then tell you you’re limited to a certain number of restore copies. So if Apple releases another “update” that destroys your collection you could be out of luck getting Apple to put back what Apple took away.

Why is Apple dropping DRM?

While it’s unfortunate that the Electronic Frontier Foundation uses the term “piracy“, the EFF convincingly argues that “DRM is not really about stopping piracy, but rather about leverage over authorized distributors”. Furthermore, Apple’s iTunes DRM freedom is the exception to the rule—Apple retains DRM in many of their other products, even introducing DRM in products where it didn’t used to exist thus pushing their users into seeking alternatives which don’t hobble the stuff they paid for.

In fact, an inventory of Apple’s remaining DRM armory makes it vividly clear that DRM (backed by the DMCA) is almost always about eliminating legitimate competition, hobbling interoperability, and creating de facto technology monopolies:

So Apple is dropping iTunes DRM. That’s okay, but iTunes has a long way to go to compete with the features we’ve long been offered from more reputable music distributors like Magnatune. DRM remains a mainstay of Apple’s products despite any convincing argument that DRM is about fighting illicit copying.