Ding dong, the witch is dead

Yeah, I know it's a little early to declare the DRM 'witch' to be dead but EMI and Apple may very well put the first nail in her coffin!

Yeah, I know it's a little early to declare the DRM 'witch' to be dead but EMI and Apple may very well put the first nail in her coffin! 

Music piracy was born in the early 1970s.  The cassette tape recorder was new and the Dolby B encoding (for reducing background 'hiss') was even newer.  The 'state of the art' was long-playing records -- made of vinyl, LP's had their own shortcomings but when new they produced surprisingly high-quality recordings.  (Nearly as good as reel-to-reel tape -- and far more accessible to consumers.) 

Seeing the appeal of cassettes, record companies embarked on a two-tiered approach to selling music.  The serious listener still bought LP's for their quality but portability made the cassette a superior choice for the 'on-the-go' consumer so the industry also sold pre-recorded cassettes of their record library.  By and large, these pre-recorded cassettes were of clearly inferior sound quality. 

It didn't take long to figure out that two or three people could share the cost of two LP's and a blank cassette and, using Dolby B encoding, make high-quality recordings of these brand new LP's while spending less than they would have on pre-recorded cassettes.  Was this legal?  Nope.  But this kind of 'casual piracy' was tolerated by the music industry because they knew that high-quality reproduction was pretty-much limited to first-generation copies.  With the development of the CD, in the 1980's, digitally-recorded music could be copied over-and-over with no loss of quality.  Still, piracy remained 'in-check' in large part because distribution of digital music remained friend-to-friend. 

Fast-forward twenty years and friends are still sharing the cost of music with their friends.  The CD remains the gold standard for audio (as is the DVD for video) and the MP3 is the CD's 'lower-quality' sibling.  Only now, the "CD-player" is a computer and copying a recording is as simple as copying a data file.  If distribution were still friend-to-friend, the impact of this 'casual piracy' would still be small but today distribution is often peer-to-peer between computers connected to the Internet (and taking place largely without human intervention). 

Unscrupulous peer-to-peer software vendors are turning their unwitting 'customers' into large-scale pirates subject to federal prosecution.  What's worse, shortsighted recording companies are going after those same unwitting 'customers' instead of the real culprits -- those making money off of the piracy of music (and video).  Rather than embracing the distribution technology (and using it to their advantage to cut costs), the recording industry turned to DRM (digital rights management), a catch-all approach which does nothing to deter those 'pirates for profit' -- yet makes enemies out of lots of paying customers. 

In Steven Jobs' open letter of 6 February 2007, entitled Thoughts on Music, he points out that over 90% of the music sold today is on CD and therefore DRM-free already.  So, how much impact can DRM have in stopping wholesale piracy? 

NOT MUCH.  After all, if most music sold is already DRM-free, piracy via peer-to-peer networks will continue to run rampant.   

Is it really worth it to the recording industry to alienate so many customers by continuing to force DRM technology on us? 

PROBABLY NOT.  Defeating DRM today is no more difficult than defeating copy-protection schemes for software (and VCR tapes) was in the 1990's -- but unlike those tools, simply possessing DRM-defeating tools is a felony, even if used legally.  Forcing customers to commit a felony to use their own music in a legal fashion is not good for business.  For most of us, all DRM does is alienate us by keeping us from playing our music wherever and whenever we want. 

Well, things may be changing: EMI, Apple partner on DRM-free premium musicFinally, a major player in the recording industry (EMI) has decided to partner with Apple to sell DRM-free music via iTunes (granted at a premium price).  To sweeten the pot for the premium price, Apple and EMI will distribute DRM-free music which was recorded at a higher bit-rate of 256Kbps.

Thanks EMI (and Apple) for recognizing that customer needs and desires are legitimate.  It's time for the rest of the members of the RIAA to come on board.  And its time for your congressmen and mine to repeal those portions of the DCMA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act) which criminalize the use of DRM-circumventing technologies when doing so does not infringe upon the copyright holder. 


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