IBM's Sutor understands DRM, but logic misses major point

In his blog, Bob Sutor has responded to a post about digital rights managment (DRM) technology by Marc Wagner here on ZDNet.  In response to my ongoing series of rants about DRM (what should be called C.
Written by David Berlind, Inactive

In his blog, Bob Sutor has responded to a post about digital rights managment (DRM) technology by Marc Wagner here on ZDNet.  In response to my ongoing series of rants about DRM (what should be called C.R.A.P.:  Read why or watch CRAP: The Movie), Wagner explored the possible reasons that consumers are so passive about DRM. To me, it's simple. Most don't know it's there. 

Originally, Apple's iPods (a dangerous vehicle into the marketplace for DRM) sold for two big reasons.  One was the revolutionary user interface that redefined how to navigate music and playlists on a device of the iPod's size. The other was the a la carte (one song at a time) availability, through the iTunes Music Store (iTMS) of hit music from major record labels.  Finally, we could have guilt-free downloads of music.  Today, both of those advantages have been matched by competitors and the iPods sells on image.

While in San Francisco for JavaOne and Gartner Symposium/ITxpo earlier this week, I couldn't help but notice the billboard advertisements for Apple, all of which portrayed a very hip looking silhouette of a human sporting the figuratively iPod-trademarked white headphone wires connected to a white iPod which, if you examine it closely, looks almost nothing like an iPod.  The Marlboro brand of cigarettes has often gotten away with the same trick by putting a cowboy on a horse in its advertisements when there's no way to tell what he's smoking. 

It's  no longer about the product.  It's about the image and in both cases (Apple and Marlboro), people are seduced into craving that image regardless of the cancer hiding inside.  With cigarettes, I think we've finally woken up to how harmful it can be to conform to that image.  With the DRM hiding in our iPods, we'll need the DRM-equivalent of some blackened lung tissue floating in a jar of formaldehyde and a few major lawsuits before people wake up to the harm being done to them.  But back to Sutor's blog, which cleverly connects the problem of DRM to the problem of proprietary file formats (and there is a connection), Sutor misses the point when he writes (and podcasts):

I’m not passive about DRM and I usually avoid it in my personal buying. I like eMusic because the price is right for really interesting music and the songs are delivered as mp3s. Occasionally I will buy music from the online service that matches my mp3 player if it is something I just have to have right that second, but that’s pretty rare. Usually I just wait and buy the CD online. The price is often comparable and I have the added warm and fuzzy feeling of having the physical CD as backup.

Although he eventually to leads us to the right conclusion, the above passage about buying CDs leads us astray first.  I've heard this "just go out and buy the CD" argument before too.

Sutor, or anyone else who has a collection of LPs from the old days knows all too well that the business model is to sell one or two hits for the price of an entire LP.  Very rarely is a record or CD full of hits like Fleetwood Mac's Rumors, Steve Miller's Book of Dreams or one of Billy Joel's albums.  

The point is that you absolutely should be able to buy music a la carte.  You should be able to pick and choose just that music you like and build your own play lists.  I can remember the sour feeling I had as a teenager when I spent ten of my hard earned dollars to buy an entire album only to find out there was only one song on it that I wanted to hear.  Sometimes to no avail, I'd try to force myself to like the other songs. 

You shouldn't  be forced to buy the kit with the kaboodle (or Lotus Notes to get IBM's ODF-compliant word processor). Asking people to buy stuff they'll never use is so yesterday. It's an old trick that riddles the world and that created some incredibly fat cats. Those fat cats could have just as easily made a decent living like the rest of us -- or maybe even more of one  --  by delivering better value.  But, they were in charge of the  packaging and controlled the distribution channels and who were consumers to take charge? 

Now, with bits as the package and the Internet as the distribution channel, that business model has come home to roost and the music industry is apparently willing to play along.  It wants to be able to sell one song at a time and it wants to be able to set the price so it can charge more when a song is hot, and less when it's not.  I think that's fair.  I'd love to be able to pay $2 or $3 dollars for a song that's at the top of the charts now and 10 or 15 cents per song for some of my favorite oldies from the 50's, 60's, 70's and 80's.  But I can't. Just when I thought that prices would no longer be artificially propped up through packaging and distribution control, the better-than-70-percent penetration of Apple's proprietary DRM into the channel for Internet-based sales of a la carte music has left us no better off than we were before.

For starters, as I've already written, that degree of marketshare with a proprietary packaging technology is what caused the record labels to relinquish control over their destiny (and Destiny's Child) to Apple. The record labels asked Steve Jobs for control of their prices and Steve Jobs turned them down. Jobs basically told them "99 cents for everything, take or leave it" and the record industry, clearly fearful of Jobs' control and influence over their business, knuckled under.  For their own good, that of their artists, and that of their customers, the record labels should have held their ground because without them, Apple's iTMS and iPods are nothing.  The contract was over and so too could have been iTMS if only the record labels weren't so insecure about the strength of Jobs' hand.  Like other content producers (the movie studios for example), the record labels are the ones holding all the cards. Only they didn't know it.

For lasts (as opposed to the aforementioned starters), we're even worse off than we were before because, unlike with records, CDs, and cassettes, we can't move the music we buy to the device of our choosing.  For example, suppose you have $1,000 worth of songs and videos in your iPod that you purchased through the iTMS and you decide to buy Motorola's new Q because of the way it can hold pictures of your family and friends, play music, play videos, browse the Web (wirelessly) and make phone calls.  Personally speaking, I'd rather have one device that does it all. 

With a 1 GB SD card, you could easily fit most of that content onto the Q except for one problem. The Q runs Windows Mobile which doesn't support the way the content you purchased from iTMS was formatted and protected by Apple.  In fact, Windows Mobile supports Microsoft's way of formatting and protecting content which is equally troublesome since that doesn't work everywhere either.  OK, let's say converging your playback devices and your phone isn't your cup of tea.  Even so, it's plausible that you might want to load some of your favorite music into a pair Oakley Thump 2 Sunglasses.  That way, you can listen to your music with your sunglasses in situations where a full-blown portable playback device doesn't make sense like on a bike, at the beach, or in a volleyball game.  Here's the fine print from Oakley's Web site:

Songs transferred to iTunes from CDs are in the .m4a file format, which is compatible with THUMP 2. Songs purchased from the iTunes Music Store are in the m4p format and are not compatible with THUMP 2 because Apple reserves that format for iPod use only.

The language is confusing.  From what's said on the Web site, you'd guess that M4A (the same thing as Apple's AAC format without the DRM protection) is the only supported format.  But, as it turns out, according to  the owners manual for the Thumper 2, the sunglasses also support MP3 (up to 320 kbps), MP3 VBR (variable bit rate), non DRM'd WMA (Windows Media Audio), DRM'd WMA, and WAV.  So, as is the case with moving iTMS-purchased music into the Motorola Q, you cannot move your iTMS-purchased music into the Thump 2.  OK, how about moving it into one of the MP3-enabled car audio systems from Chevy like the one found in the Cobalt.  As best as we can tell from the Web site, that only supports MP3.  So, in this case neither Apple nor Microsoft's DRM are supported and you'll need to digitize the music from a CD in order to get it into your car.  In other words, music purchased from iTMS or a Microsoft PlaysForSure-compliant store (all content from such stores are protected with Microsoft's DRM) won't work at all. 

And yes, I know you can take songs purchased via iTMS and then burn them to CD with iTunes, and then re-digitize them back from the CD into some unprotected format like MP3.  But not only is that purposeful circumvention of DRM which is been outlawed by the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, it's also a far cry from the frictionless world where the bits should be able to flow seemlessly into any device of our choosing. Can  you imagine going through that laborious process for 1000 songs or more? What is your time worth?

And that's what this eventually comes down to: cost, convenience, freedom to choose and greed.  Earlier this week, at Gartner Symposium/ITxpo, in response to my question about how problematic he thinks DRM is, Motorola CEO Ed Zander said (on video)

The music experience has left a bad taste in a lot of people's mouthes.  For 99 cents [per song], the only people that made money were the MP3 player companies.  So the hardware guys made the money and the guys that owned the content made nothing.  And it should be the inverted right?

Right. Not only should record labels and other entertainment companies be in control of the price of their content (and their destiny), our experience and cost should live up to the full capability and scalability of the technology that's widely available today.  But as long as we have to pay multiple times for the same music in order to listen to it when, where, and with the devices we want and as long as we have to parse through a sea of acronyms to figure out what works with what, and as long as we have to jump through hoops and break laws in order to apply common sense, we've got a lot of blackened lungs and formaldehyde in our future.

What has us in this mess?  Greed.

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