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Playing Fair – Apple, Amazon and Freedom from DRM

August 19, 2010

Along with the introduction of digital music purchases, came the rise of DRM restricting how it could be used.  With traditional media, music was generally freely playable and transferable, but over the past decade we have seen more and more restrictions imposed on consumers, controlling which portable device music is played on, how many computers it can be used with, and how long you have access to it.  As a result of these restrictions, many people no longer feel as if they really “own” the music they  purchase.  Even an act as simple as buying a different MP3 player could entail having to  repurchase your whole music library.

iTunes, the largest seller of digital music online, introduced FairPlay, a DRM scheme, into its delivery system at the request of record labels in their efforts to discourage piracy.  This initially meant that music purchased from the store could only be played on Apple products, and only on 3 different computers.  Even now, if you want to put protected music on an MP3 player that does not run Apple software, you simply can’t do so without first circumventing the protection.

My daughter told me that after losing her iPod and deciding to use her phone for music temporarily, she was very frustrated to find that half her music could not be transferred due to the DRM.  This discouraged her from downloading songs through iTunes, and after discovering that Amazon provide DRM-free music, often for a cheaper price, she stopped purchasing music from iTunes altogether.

Undoubtedly, the restrictions put in place by DRM can leave buyers who have paid good money for their music feeling bitter as a result of being limited to only using their music in a certain way.

 Amazon in 2007 started selling DRM-free downloads of music, partly to compete with the iTunes service.  Amazon convinced big music labels such as Sony BMG and Warner to allow their music to be sold without protection in an effort to combat Apple’s near-monopoly over the market, which some argued was stifling competition and leading to less choice for consumers.

DRM-free tracks, while unrestricted in their use, generally include watermarks identifying the buyer.  This allows tracing of the source of music shared illegally over peer-to-peer networks or similar.  This way customers are not limited in the use of their music, while at the same time offering some degree of accountability to satisfy publishers.

Apple followed suit and dispensed with DRM protected music with the iTunes Plus service, but at a cost.  To upgrade your music library to DRM-free music means 20p per song, and requires that you convert all of your music, or none of it.

Arguably, DRM served mostly to frustrate customers, leaving them feeling cheated.  And while for now it appears that DRM has failed, in the case of the music industry, that is not to say that it will not resurface in future as the battle between the recording industry and piracy rages on.  Even now FairPlay is used to protect iPhone applications, and electronic books, and only time will tell if a consumer backlash will lead to the restrictions placed on other types of media being lifted.