Note to recording artists: Just say "no" to Apple

Summary:In case you missed it, while I and other members of the anti-DRM brigade continue our crusade against digital rights management technologies (officially, DRM.  But I call it CRAP.

In case you missed it, while I and other members of the anti-DRM brigade continue our crusade against digital rights management technologies (officially, DRM.  But I call it CRAP.  Read why or watch CRAP: The Movie), France stepped up to the plate and drafted a copyright bill that, if passed into French law, would have required Apple to open up its proprietary DRM so that content (audio, video) downloaded from Apple's iTune's Music Store (iTMS) can play on other devices besides iPods and in other PC software besides iTunes.  Your fans should have the right to play your content back on the device of their choosing. In some ways, the French bill was looking to make Apple's DRM live up to its name: FairPlay. 

Being able to take your favorite Bare Naked Ladies song and natively listen to it with any of your digital playback technologies or devices without having to illegally circumvent the copy protection (eg: Apple's DRM) that's included with it seems like a fair thing to ask for.  It's also the right thing for consumers who, because of the way Apple has so smoothly integrated iTMS, iTunes, and iPod, are mostly unaware of the harm (in the form of restrictions) being caused to them as a result of using Apple's products and services.  For example, should they over time buy 1000 songs at 99 cents each through iTMS and later decide that, because of how powerful the new class of smartphones are, that they want to use the same Windows Mobile-based device for playing their music as they use for making phone calls, they may be surprised to learn that their $1000 investment in music won't work on their new $500 smartphone/playback device.  At least not without breaking the law.

If Apple didn't control more than 80 percent of all music sold online or didn't have the power to force the record labels to knuckle under, such trainwrecks in compatibility might not be an issue.  But Apple does control more than 80 percent of all legitimate online music sales and that power is what what brought the record labels to their knees, forcing them to knuckle under to Steve Jobs' rule that all songs will be sold for 99 cents even though that's not what the record labels wanted. 

In seeing the harm that could be (and will be) ultimately caused to its citizens, France had the prescience to take action and drafted a bill that would neutralize not just Apple's power, but also that of any other proprietary DRM purveyor (eg: Microsoft).  The bill had real teeth.  Incisors, bicuspids, and fangs that would make any US voter proud.  In contrast, here in the US, our draft bills and laws do the opposite.  They empower companies like Apple to harm us and they incarcerate us in jail if we do boo about it. For example, take matters into our own hands by copying an iTunes song in such a manner that it plays back on our Windows Mobile device.  Teeth? Removable dentures come to my mind when I think about the lawmaking here.

Now, however, it appears as though the French bill is having its fangs removed. According to several accounts including this story in Forbes Magazine,  French lawmakers are watering the bill down in such a way that Apple would still be required to open its DRM up for interoperation with third party devices, but only in cases where  the copyright holders (ie: the musicians or record labels) didn't give Apple explicit permission to lock those third party devices out.  

Whether or not its possible to even get the DRM working on a song by song basis like this (and, in a way that doesn't completely confuse consumers) is worth asking. Will Apple be forced to put some sort of visual cue on each song in its iTunes Music Store that indicates whether it's "WidePlay" (I made this up.  It means "plays on all devices") versus Fairplay (unfairly works only where Apple says it can work)?  Provided the scheme is workable (personally, I don't think it is), then I have one message to all you artists and record labels with copyrights out there: If and when this law passes and if and when Apple comes to you and asks if it can lock your content down to the point that it only works on iPods, just say no.  Your fans should have the right to play your content back on the device of their choosing.  Period.  End of story.

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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