Can we really trust Apple's iTunes?

Lock-in, lock-out or was it just an accident of history? FairPlay's in the dock.

can we really trust apples itunes

Damon Albarn’s band, The Good, The Bad and The Queen, was one of the first EMI acts to begin selling music DRM-free through iTunes.

Credit: EMI PR 2007

Apple's in the dock, accused of using copyright protection to lock music fans into iTunes, even though the music labels demanded such protection in the first place.

Harmony

A court case claims Apple wanted to stop third-party devices, services and software from accessing and using iTunes' DRM system, FairPlay.

In July 2004, Real Networks debuted Harmony -- software that converted files sold by its music store into a FairPlay-compatible format. Apple stopped the hack in its tracks.

Was this correct?

Music labels were frightened. File sharing was killing the industry. Jobs always argued iTunes helped "keep honest people honest." Apple had to invest in copy protection to sell music at all.

Fair play

Apple was under pressure. If it failed to keep iTunes secure, labels would stop selling music through it and might impose penalties. Apple was required by music labels to actively maintain and protect FairPlay DRM. If Apple had failed to end Harmony when it appeared, iTunes was finisihed.

Apple and the labels later agreed to sell music without copy protection via iTunes Plus, but not every label signed-up immediately.

Interoperability

EMI joined first, announcing its new spirit of liberalism at a big 2007 PR do hosted at its London HQ, which I attended. Apple CEO Steve Jobs and then-EMI CEO Eric Nicoli spoke, and Damon Albarn's band performed.

"Our goal is to give consumers the best possible digital music experience. By providing DRM-free downloads, we aim to address the lack of interoperability that is frustrating for many music fans. We believe that offering consumers the opportunity to buy higher quality tracks and listen to them on the device or platform of their choice will boost sales of digital music," said Nicoli at the time [Italics mine]. EMI research suggested 84 percent of online music customers would be happy to spend more on music if sold DRM-free at higher quality. "Higher-quality tracks outsell low-quality downloads by a factor of ten to one," he said.

'By the end of the year'

Jobs thought the other majors would join in fast: “We expect more than half of the songs on iTunes will be offered in iTunes Plus versions by the end of this year,” he said. It took two years.

That it took so long subverts the common argument that labels wanted to undermine iTunes by ensuring music sold through the service would play on other devices.

What had changed was recognition by labels that legal punishment of file-sharers wasn't preventing music from being stolen online. They needed to offer consumers a product equally as good as those being shared, and this meant music free of DRM. "DRM-free songs are far more popular than tracks sold with DRM applied," Wippit CEO, Paul Myers said.

Interoperable

"Apple has been a true pioneer in digital music, and we are delighted they share our vision of an interoperable market that provides consumers with greater choice, quality, convenience and value for money," said Nicoli.

Jobs addressed the lock-in accusation in 2007. "Some people doubted Apple's sincerity," he said. "They said we had too much to lose by breaking the link between the iPod and iTunes. We are continuing to do the right thing for the customers."

Nicoli was pragmatic: "We believe we have to trust our customers. The fact is that some will disappoint us by stealing our music, and we will continue to combat piracy. This move will make digital music more accessible."

When the history of music file protection is written, it will show the labels' attempts to litigate against file-sharing utterly failed. Apple's move to offer DRM-free music files actually helped the music industry rehabilitate itself. The locked-in nature of FairPlay was a by-product of industry fear, which maybe was exploited but ultimately abandoned in favor of trusting music fans more.

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