iTunes supposedly DRM-free music not so DRM-free?

Summary:If you follow the digital music business at all, then you know by now that earlier this year, Apple CEO Steve Jobs issued a clarion call (ok, an open letter) to the entertainment confab to free digital content of any digital rights management (DRM) technology: the technology that, in the course of trying to prevent piracy of content, also prevents honest people like you and me from moving iTunes-bought music from an Apple iPod to a non-Apple MP3 player (that's just one example).

If you follow the digital music business at all, then you know by now that earlier this year, Apple CEO Steve Jobs issued a clarion call (ok, an open letter) to the entertainment confab to free digital content of any digital rights management (DRM) technology: the technology that, in the course of trying to prevent piracy of content, also prevents honest people like you and me from moving iTunes-bought music from an Apple iPod to a non-Apple MP3 player (that's just one example). EMI, a record label, took that clarion call to heart and has since carved out deals with Apple and Amazon to sell DRM-free music. But is the music really DRM free?

According to Erica Sadun, author at the The Unofficial Apple Weblog (tuaw.com), iTunes-bought MP3s still have the iTunes account owners' names embedded in them. Sadun has a screen shot showing what happens when she runs the "grep" command against a song she downloaded from the iTunes Music Store. It shows her first and last name. As such, she has appropriately titled her entry: "TAUW Tip: Don't Torrent that Song." In other words, if you share a DRM-free copy of some song you purchased on iTunes, you'll be sharing your identity at the same time -- a piece of information that could easily find its way back to lawyers and authorities.

So is it DRM? Well, DRM systems can't really function without binding playback devices (eg: iPods) and software (iTunes) to content without having some piece of information that's unique, but common to both: a digital version of your identity. So, to the extent that iTunes is still binding your identity to the supposedly DRM-free music, the technology still enables the entertainment confab (along with Apple) to engage in rights management. If for example, someone makes their iTunes-purchased DRM-free music available through BitTorrent and the rightsholders discover the identity of that person (easily done), chances are they will use whatever legal means they have at their disposal to enforce their rights to that music. That, if you ask me, is still a means of managing their rights, digitally so. Is that not a form of digital rights management? You tell me. But what really gets under my skin about this has to do with the answers I got during my podcast interview with executives from Amazon and EMI about Amazon's Apple-like deal with EMI (where Amazon will opening a DRM-free music store featuring EMI's recording artists as well). I asked EMI's Barney Wragg point blank if, by allowing customers to buy DRM free music, his company was going to be depending on the honor system to survive and, in essentially saying "yes," the idea that the music we buy would still somehow be bound to our identity never came up. In fairness, maybe that won't be the case with EMI-purchased music on Amazon (although I never asked for specifics regarding Apple's deal with EMI, Wragg did liken the two). But if it turns out to be the case, then the answers provided by Wragg will have turned out to be slightly disingenuous. Time will tell.

Topics: Apple

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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