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Sure to light up the Internet for days to come, Steve Jobs has posted a message on the Apple website laying out his (and the company’s) position on Digital Rights Management (DRM) and “closed” music distribution systems. In it, Jobs reminds readers that it was the music companies who demanded DRM be put in place before agreeing to the usage terms that Apple wanted provide for its customers. Jobs reveals that part of the agreement with the music industry was to fix any breaches of the DRM within a certain time-frame, which makes licensing Apple’s Fairplay DRM to third-party vendors tricky:

On the surface, this seems like a good idea since it might offer customers increased choice now and in the future. And Apple might benefit by charging a small licensing fee for its FairPlay DRM. However, when we look a bit deeper, problems begin to emerge. The most serious problem is that licensing a DRM involves disclosing some of its secrets to many people in many companies, and history tells us that inevitably these secrets will leak. The Internet has made such leaks far more damaging, since a single leak can be spread worldwide in less than a minute. Such leaks can rapidly result in software programs available as free downloads on the Internet which will disable the DRM protection so that formerly protected songs can be played on unauthorized players.

An equally serious problem is how to quickly repair the damage caused by such a leak. A successful repair will likely involve enhancing the music store software, the music jukebox software, and the software in the players with new secrets, then transferring this updated software into the tens (or hundreds) of millions of Macs, Windows PCs and players already in use. This must all be done quickly and in a very coordinated way. Such an undertaking is very difficult when just one company controls all of the pieces. It is near impossible if multiple companies control separate pieces of the puzzle, and all of them must quickly act in concert to repair the damage from a leak.

The “shocking” revelation in the article is that jobs doesn’t argue that the current closed iPod/iTunes system is good for consumers, but rather, acknowledges that an open, DRM-free solution would be best:

Imagine a world where every online store sells DRM-free music encoded in open licensable formats. In such a world, any player can play music purchased from any store, and any store can sell music which is playable on all players. This is clearly the best alternative for consumers, and Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat. If the big four music companies would license Apple their music without the requirement that it be protected with a DRM, we would switch to selling only DRM-free music on our iTunes store. Every iPod ever made will play this DRM-free music.

I added the bold for emphasis because some cynics, myself included, have always figured that Apple would never drop the “closed systems are better for users” argument, even if the music industry ever eased their DRM requirements.

This article is a call for the record companies to do just that:

Why would the big four music companies agree to let Apple and others distribute their music without using DRM systems to protect it? The simplest answer is because DRMs haven’t worked, and may never work, to halt music piracy. Though the big four music companies require that all their music sold online be protected with DRMs, these same music companies continue to sell billions of CDs a year which contain completely unprotected music. That’s right! No DRM system was ever developed for the CD, so all the music distributed on CDs can be easily uploaded to the Internet, then (illegally) downloaded and played on any computer or player.

This very public change of tone regarding the iPod/iTunes ecosystem was clearly prompted by the increasing pressure being put on Apple in Europe, and Jobs acknowledges this (somewhat) in his last paragraph. This article attempts to shift the focus of the current criticism away from Apple and onto the record companies. He suggests that Apple’s hands are tied until sufficient pressure is put on the record companies to change their DRM demands.

Whether this has been Jobs’ stance all along, or whether the current hot water in Europe has forced a “come to Jesus” moment, this is an excellent development. There are very few people in the world today who could start the ball rolling with this kind of momentum, and it’s refreshing to see him come out with a statement so clear and unequivocal.

Lastly, as much as I like reading the Fake Steve Jobs, this article reminds me how great it would be to read a Real Steve Jobs blog, spin and all.

One Response to “Steve Jobs Calls For DRM-Free Music”

  1. [...] Fireball has posted a thorough summary of Steve Jobs’ recent Thoughts On Music article, as well as some of the Internet reaction and analysis. It’s a good read, though for [...]