Then why not do it?

Cory Doctorow says, OK, you want to offer DRM-free music? Do it. There are numerous artists that would love to sell their music DRM-free on iTunes.

But Apple has been saying for years that DRM on iTunes is all or nothing (see the third comment, and a tip o’ the old antlers to Hack the Planet).

That’s clearly a business decision — there’s no technical reason Apple couldn’t offer both DRM-ed and DRM-free songs. But it could easily be contractual. Apple’s agreement with the big four may say they can’t offer DRM-free music as the recording industry executives might fear that the great communist scourge of uncontrolled music files would eat their lunch and make love to their women better than they can.

Jobs has many reasons for challenging the labels — mostly due to Apple’s legal issues in Europe — but that doesn’t make his statement any less significant and Doctorow’s persnickety response doesn’t give it enough credit.

Right now it really does seem that DRM-free music is coming to a Mac (and a PC) near your some time in the not too distant future. Customers want it, analysts want it, and now technology companies want it.

  • Matthew:

    Cory Doctorow can just shove it. He rails on and on against evil Apple and its DRM strategy to take over the world. Now that he is refuted by Steve Jobs himself, he can’t just say “oh this is great news.” He has to rail on and on again. Cory, shut your trap. When you act like this, you appear completely irrational, meaning people will no longer take you seriously. You take great news and try to find any negative in it that you can. If Apple dropped DRM tomorrow, he’d complain that they’re still evil because they didn’t do it sooner. Also, I want people to shut up about eMusic. You can’t buy just one song from them. You have to get a subscription. What a pain in the neck. OK, I’m done complaining. I just hope the labels do feel the pressure and let Apple sell music DRM-free.

  • This is a letter from Steve Jobs asking for the help of the consumer. The consumers have been going along with this notion of DRM as a protection scheme, but his Steveness wants the consumers to think otherwise. He makes some great points, but when the aura wears off we might start to poke holes in the posting.

    And I agree that DRM should be all or nothing, because the fear that people have when buying a song on the Zune that they can’t squirt to someone else? That’s not easy or simple. That’s file by file, and who wants to play that guessing game? Not me. I doubt the Macalpoe does either.

    Not to mention it also frees up battery life on the iPod when listening to protected tracks.

  • Dan:


    I also agree that iTS DRM should be all or nothing, but not to reduce customers ‘fear’. The simple truth is that a large proportion of iTunes customers just won’t have any concept of what DRM is. It’s easy to talk in these circles about a mixed-DRM paradigm, but by the time you’ve explained to ‘Uncle George’ how Fairplay works, he will not be in a fit state to deal with working out which tracks he buys have DRM.

    I think Apple’s current all-or-nothing approach is analogous to their simple Mac product line-up. The customer knows exactly what they’re getting.

  • MonkeyT:

    Another reason it won’t happen piecemeal is that Apple won’t introduce a potential obstacle to the consumer during the buying process. The option the RIAA has always wanted is different terms of use for different songs. Apple likes it simple because consumers like it simple. If some tunes on the iTunes Store are Fairplay and some aren’t, it has to be immediately obvious which is which (Apple would never allow more than two options under any circumstance).

    The simplest way to do that is to add a badge, either to “DRM-Free” songs or to “Fairplay-Enabled” songs. Apple would want every search to bring up more DRM-Free results than DRM songs, simply for appearances. Until the vast majority of tunes are “DRM-Free”, throwing that flag in the consumer’s face only brings up the point that MOST of the tunes are locked down. It starts an argument Apple would not want interfering with a purchase. Apple won’t (and shouldn’t) remind a consumer of that good a reason to NOT complete an order. (I, personally wouldn’t expect a “DRM-Free” flag, since the only other flag is ‘Explicit Lyrics’, which for most consumers would be considered a “bad thing”. That interface element has already been identified to consumers as reason to be cautious. And “Fairplay-Enabled” sounds like the kind of marketing doublespeak we get from microsoft. I believe it will be all or nothing, but I’ve been wrong before.)

    Selling both DRM and non-DRM files at the same time could happen, but not until Apple can demonstrably and visibly remind customers that they are on the Consumer’s side and are winning the battle.

  • Dan:

    I agree completely. I think what we’re trying to avoid is this “fear” of doing something wrong. I know that my mother, Mrs. Blattapus, would freak out if she got an error message about something like a song being “protected” and I’d get a phone call in a moments notice all about it. Apple’s way of doing things is completely without confusion or “fear” of doing something wrong.

    If Mrs. Blattapus had two songs, one with DRM and one without and attempted to send the DRM’d song to my aunt and my aunt said it did’t work because the file was “protected” or “managed” then my mother wouldn’t try to do anything with the other file, out of fear that she would somehow break her account or system. That’s the fear I was talking about, not a specific DRM kind of fear.

  • Bergamot:

    There *are* some technical bumps along the way to mixed distribution. Every song in the library would have to be tagged (and heaven help them if a mistake is made), the server software would need to be able to distinguish between DRMed and non-DRMed material, and iTunes would probably need an update. These are all relatively trivial, but still cost money and time, and all increase the surface area for DRM-stripping attacks.

    If the primary obstacle is legal, though, what happens when one of the Big Four decides to open its catalog, but the rest don’t?

  • James Bailey:

    You can see from Doctorow’s snippy response that he really doesn’t care about a DRM free iTunes and the iPod. To him this is all a political movement where he has cast Steve Jobs as the Great Satan of DRM. This memo by Jobs has him flummoxed because it flies in the face of the myth that he has been promoting for years. He has little choice but to deny that Jobs is serious despite the overwhelming evidence that Apple has little to gain from DRM.

    If Doctorow and his cadre of anti-DRM followers actually cared about the issue, they would be praising Jobs and taking him at his word. There is little to be gained by implying (or stating outright) that Jobs is lying or that this a change of heart because of European concerns. If you really want DRM free music from the major labels, you would be singing praises to Jobs in the highest profile way you could. Anything else undermines the exact thing you are theoretically trying to promote.

    A message to Doctorow, take Steve at his word and work with him to eliminate DRM from music. Stop trying to change the subject about movies or TV shows or whether or not independent labels could already be DRM free on iTunes. Those things are unimportant to the main goal of eliminating DRM on music that people actually buy in quantity.

  • Splashman:

    Not in a million years will SJ allow his store to sell DRM’d music alongside non-DRM’d music, for several reasons, not the least of which is the simplicity mantra. Same reason he stuck to his guns on $0.99 pricing.

    Seems to me that if one label cracks, the rest will follow in short order. It’s that first one that’s going to be a doozy.

    Just thought of an additional angle to this no-DRM thing. What happens to Zune’s “squirt” feature if the labels remove the DRM requirement? There’s no way the labels will allow squirting without DRM. So either MS adds DRM solely for the squirting feature, or Zune’s raison d’etre gets flushed.

  • If the primary obstacle is legal, though, what happens when one of the Big Four decides to open its catalog, but the rest don’t?

    This is what has the Macalope a little concerned. Would Apple go ahead and sell that label’s music without DRM or would it say “Sorry! We need them all to agree.”?

  • Billy K:

    Cory is brilliant, but his Apple axe grinding really needs to end. He’s not doing his reputation any good.

  • V-Train:


    MS has already added DRM just for the squirt feature. All songs, including unprotected MP3s, are saddled with the limitations when sent to another Zune.

  • Macalope:
    I think he would absolutely need all four labels to agree to drop the DRM restrictions for downloaded music. He’s a very all or nothing kinda guy when it comes to changes like this.

    And I think that if the record companies do this and it’s proven successful, then we’re looking at the next battle being with the TV content produers and movie content producers.

    I wonder if the mp3 buying craze will slow much like the CD and DVD buying crazes slowed when people bought the back catalogs they felt they needed. I love Kiss, but there is only going to be so many times I buy “Dynasty” and “Unmasked” just to have all the albums in the newest format.

  • Follower:

    I commented about this all-or-nothing aspect of iTunes’ DRM on the previous post — before you published this one, ‘Lope. Great minds think alike, I guess…

  • macius:

    I am heartened by Steve Jobs’ open letter. He proves yet again that he gets it. It’s quite clear that the labels are where we need to focus our attention. The big problem facing us now, as consumers, is how to send the proper market signals to apply pressure to record labels. For example, if we stop buying DRM’d music and only buy CDs… the RIAA would start dancing in the street since they really dont feel comfortable with this whole music downloading thing anyway. If we stop buying CDs and only buy non-DRM’d music… we lose because our music choices would be severely limited. I suppose we could stop buying music all together. But that hardly seems realistic.

    So what do you think? What is the proper response?

  • swissfondue:

    ” think he would absolutely need all four labels to agree to drop the DRM restrictions for downloaded music. ”
    Not really. Apple started the Australian iTunes store without Sony. Same in Japan.

  • The cracks are forming in the foundation:

    “…He will smite the giants of hymn for their transgressions. Their towers will buckle and crack and He will wipe the world clean of DRM for ever and ever…”

    Jobs 23:46-47


  • Follower:

    Oh — and lots of love for Cory Doctorow here.

  • Dhrakar:

    Here’s another question to wrap your furry little antlers around Mr. ‘lope: If all 4 labels cave and decide to license their music what will Microsoft do? They have invested mightily in DRM throughout Vista and with the Zune… I’m thinking that this is as much a shot across the bow of Microsoft as it is the RIAA.

  • Chris:

    “But Apple has been saying for years that DRM on iTunes is all or nothing (see the third comment, and a tip o’ the old antlers to Hack the Planet).”

    You’re misreading that comment. What Apple has been saying for years is that all indies get the same contract, because Apple doesn’t want to negotiate thousands of different contracts, one for each indie label. They have not been saying that DRM is all or nothing, although it’s had that effect in practice.

    Some of your more vehement readers might want to cut Corey some slack. Without him and others like him, it’s unlikely Steve would have felt the need to post his thoughts.Yes, it can be grating, but someone has to be out there on the fringe, making things happen.

    I mean, do you guys actually like restrictions on what you can do with the music you own? Corey has done a lot more for the anti-DRM cause than any of you. Are you just alll conservatives or something? Because you sure seem to appreciate a lot of whine with your cheese.

  • Chris:

    I mispelled his name repeatedly. I suck. Oh well.

  • Splashman:

    @V-TRAIN: I’m well aware of the DRM the Zune adds for squirting (Gawd, I hate that term). My point is that if the rest of the world moves to non-DRM music, what will MS do about the squirt DRM? There’s no way the labels would allow squirting without DRM.

    “Zune: Buy a song from our store, DRM-free! Unless you want to squirt it to someone, of course — then we’ll add DRM! It’s a feature, honest! You’re welcome!”

    I suppose, if all 11 people that own Zunes have filled them with mostly non-DRM music (i.e., ripped from CDs), the situation wouldn’t change much. But currently, at least some percentage of the population has gotten used to the notion of DRM, so the notion of dealing with squirt DRM is just an incremental inconvenience. When the labels remove all the DRM, suddenly only Zune squirters will have DRM. “Get it right here, folks — the only MP3 player with DRM! And it’s brown! Get’em while they last!”

    Maybe I’m over-thinking it. Y’think?

  • blip:

    I actually thought that Cory’s response was kinda friendly – “This is a big day — a huge day.”

    Of course he is banging the anti-DRM drum but I find him much less annoying that the 50 per cent of World press who keep saying the the ipod is a locked in device. We need a high-profile big-head railing against DRM as much as we need Steve Jobs secretly plotting the future of Apple (in his underground lair).

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