Steve Jobs Is Right: DRM Upsets Consumers

Steve Jobs' open letter to the music industry regarding digital rights management for music files this week has escalated the debate tremendously. In a carefully crafted essay posted to the Apple Web site -- concurrent with growing concern over DRM in many European countries -- Jobs argues that copy protection hinders sales and upsets consumers. Jobs is now calling for the music industry to let Apple and others sell songs without DRM restrictions.

He explains: "In 2006, under 2 billion DRM-protected songs were sold worldwide by online stores, while over 20 billion songs were sold completely DRM-free and unprotected on CDs by the music companies themselves. The music companies sell the vast majority of their music DRM-free, and show no signs of changing this behavior, since the overwhelming majority of their revenues depend on selling CDs which must play in CD players that support no DRM system... So if the music companies are selling over 90 percent of their music DRM-free, what benefits do they get from selling the remaining small percentage of their music encumbered with a DRM system? There appear to be none."



I'm definitely no legal expert, and I confess I'm not too well-versed in DRM. But as a consumer who long ago traded in illegal music-file-swapping services for legitimate music downloads, I find DRM software extremely irritating. My household has at least eight different playback devices I can recall (iPods, Treos, PCs and Muvo MP3 players, and maybe even my TiVo), and there is almost no interoperability among them, save for the two iPods that my wife and I manage from the same iTunes-equipped PC. And that inoperability extends to each of the three PC-based video-editing software titles I use for my home movies; it's extremely difficult to import DRM music files. Generally, they must first be converted to MP3 files via burning a CD. This entire scene is crazy and unfriendly to the consumer!

But beyond the inconveniences of interoperability that DRM poses, I still think there's another major issue facing the viability of online music sales, and which aggressive DRM programs only fester. No, I'm not talking about virus-like DRM for CDs that spreads to your PC. The fact is that storage devices -- whether on PCs or portable music players -- have limited shelf lives and too often are borderline disposable. In the past three years, I've been through two PCs and two iPods (through a combination of malfunction and loss, respectively). Whether due to damage, loss or inevitable erosion, PCs and players holding music libraries will eventually reach their end, and the potential for those data to follow suit is significant.

Admittedly, the disposable nature of player and storage devices is a major issue in itself -- one that could play out more significantly once the recent surge of players out there begins to break down. But the most valuable asset people own is not the device; it is the vast music libraries that reside on that device. So here's my point: if consumers are going to be responsible for managing, storing and backing up music purchased online, then they should not be hindered by DRM rules when trying to protect those purchased assets, which could include making copies to other storage devices and players. Similarly, consumers should not be locked into one brand of device forever simply because the backup music files work only on that platform.

Some would argue that these issues would be resolved by backing up all music files by simply burning them to a non-DRM CD format. But that's extremely inconvenient, and I'm sure is not the norm. Others would argue that most people have friends with robust CD music collections -- friends who could lend their CDs to replenish any lost files (and a whole lot more).

That may be true. Still, I just want the ability to freely move my music files, which I paid for, anywhere I want, listen to them on any device I please, and back them up easily any way I want. To my delight, at least one of the big music companies is listening, and considering selling DRM-free music files.

I'm all for copyright protections, but today's DRM practices are not tolerable.

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