Why most customers shrug off DRM

I agree with David Berlind (Are anti-DRM declarations falling on deaf ears?) -- up to a point.

I agree with David Berlind (Are anti-DRM declarations falling on deaf ears?) -- up to a point. Mainly, we differ in that I don't think that "The Sky is Falling." What I do think is that their isn't yet enough pain for David's readers (and the music-buying public in general) to get the message. But, there will be enough pain -- soon enough.

Why is Apple so overwhelmingly successful in selling its DRM wares compared to the competition -- including Microsoft? It will take an act of Congress to put this DRM genie back into the bottle. First and foremost, Apple has enjoyed a reputation (deserved or not) for 30 years of being one of the most consumer-friendly companies in the industry. Perhaps in any industry.

Why might this perception of Apple be so widespread? It's not because Apple offers competitive pricing -- because they don't. To be sure, Apple products are always 'sexy' -- using the latest in technology to catch the user's attention. Each and every marketing campaign is well-honed and begrudgingly appealing to even the most ardent of Apple's detractors. Above all, Apple has created a trust relationship with its intensely loyal following.

A closer look at the iTunes model reveals its strengths:

  • Entry costs are zero. One can download iTunes for free and run it on a PC or Macintosh. (Yes, the absence of a Linux solution is a shortfall but a minor one from a market share perspective.) Each new iTunes release brings new features and, unlike many of it's competitors, Apple's free software is not crippled. Nor is it encumbered with unwanted advertising. Sure, their are other free music players out there but most are not as feature-rich as iTunes.
  • It costs nothing to use. Anyone who owns (or can borrow) a CD can use iTunes to port that music to their PC or Macintosh. Want to record your own music? Listen to Audio Books? You can use iTunes to manipulate any audio source.
  • Free access to their store. Apple has provided music choices for everyone, from baby boomers and their computer-literate parents to today's teens -- by providing a place where one can buy a song for 99 cents or a whole album for $9.99. Compared to the price of a CD, even on sale, this is very attractive -- especially for those of us who don't want to buy an entire album for one or two songs.


No it's not CD-quality (not yet, anyway) but neither were cassettes particularly high-quality when the choice was cassette or vinyl records. Today, the choice is CD or downloaded MP3 or ACC (MP4). From the standpoint of the casual listener, the difference in quality is indistinguishable. (As David has suggested, CD's may go away but not until CD-quality downloads are widely available for those with "golden ears".)

The competition often charges a monthly fee -- and if you decide to stop paying, you lose access to your music. Others subject you to endless advertising campaigns or charge different prices for different songs.

As David is fond of pointing out, if you buy DRM-protected music, you cannot play it just anywhere. It has to be on specific devices or under specific conditions. (You accept our advertising, you pay us a monthly fee.)

Well, Apple is no exception. If you want to play their DRM-protected music, you must play it on your registered PC or Macintosh. (They allow you up to five registered devices -- sufficient for most families.) This means that you cannot buy music and then give it to someone outside of your household. This seems to be a small price to pay for those of us who pretty much live online anyway.

Want to leave your iTunes-purchased music to your survivors? Just make sure to record your iTunes registered e-mail address and password somewhere your loved ones can find it and they are in business.

Apple's DRM catch? (There is always a catch.) To take the music you purchased from Apple with you (but leave your computer at home), you must buy an iPod for $99 or more. Want more flexibility? Apple will sell you bells and whistles (from third parties, as well as from Apple) to permit you to deliver your iTunes purchased music from an iPod to most any audio source (including a number of automobile music systems).

Apple has not made their DRM technology available outside of Apple -- except for the new Motorola Rokr E1 cell phone, said by many to be unnecessarily crippled. So, like all those other online music vendors using DRM technology, Apple makes you buy something to get anything more than its basic service (listening to 99 cents songs on your computer).

Unlike many of the others, however, Apple doesn't force you to continue to buy in order to keep the music you've already bought. Could Apple change that tomorrow? Sure they could.

David wonders why few seem concerned about DRM. Well, in part, it's because the biggest DRM player out there -- Apple -- has the luxury of a loyal customer base who trusts them. As long as Apple keeps that trust, their customers will accept DRM, no questions asked.

Enough said about Apple. What about the other guys? What about David's prediction -- that "The Sky is Falling?" Certainly, if Microsoft were to suddenly corner the DRM market, changes could come -- and fast. Do I expect it to happen? No. WMA is not ACC (or even MP3) and with memory prices dropping through the floor, the value of its space-saving characteristics is limited.

What about Microsoft's PlaysForSure DRM technology? At first glance, their willingness to license this technology to player manufacturers as well as online music sellers opens the door for complete dominance of the online music/video marketplace -- a scary thought indeed. But, what happens to that dominance when marketing forces drive some of their licensees out of business -- and thousands, perhaps millions, of customers are stranded with music they have purchased (or bought through subscription) that they can no longer play -- even with PlaysForSure? (Sure, Apple could also go out of business too, but--for a variety of reasons-- Apple's future in their selected markets seems secure for the foreseeable future.)

To be sure, the downside of DRM is not widely known and may not be for some time to come. How long will it take before our legislatures, responding to the complaints of their teenage kids, suddenly realize that the DRM provisions of the DCMA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) have restricted their own choices?

To be sure, it will take (quite literally) an act of Congress to put this DRM genie back into the bottle -- but it will happen. In the mean time, those vendors who recognize the value of customer good will (such as Apple) will continue to provide their customers the choice they deserve at fair prices. As customers start running into roadblocks to legitimate use of their music, they will abandon those vendors who do not address those roadblocks.

All the while, the pirates-for-profit will continue on their merry way and those caught in the crossfire (by unwittingly using illegitimate peer-to-peer music-sharing products) will continue to put themselves at risk.