On Apple and EMI

I usually avoid discussions about DRM, for two main reasons:

  • I am all too aware of the reasons why DRM has evolved into a commercial ecosystem of its very own.
  • It's a pointless argument, since nobody in their right mind can possibly believe it has no impact on consumers.

My personal opinion (which is mine alone) is therefore an uneasy mix of the two viewpoints above, since I both understand why it exists and why people are put off by it.

I have, however, found it increasingly obvious that, if DRM is sensibly implemented (something I happen to think that FairPlay embodies), people will have no issues whatsoever with it - and they will also, by extension of their own responsibility towards the content they purchase, start to think twice about doing rampant piracy.

Teenagers are automatically excluded from this, since they spend their teens exploring - and often distending to the point of breakage - the limits of their own responsibility, and often don't even think even once about consequences.

Nevertheless, I found the Apple-EMI announcement (here's EMI's version) a most welcome - but long overdue - event, and I was pretty amazed that it was this quick.

After all, it was only a couple of months back that Steve Jobs's piece caused minor earthquakes in a number of industries, and these things tend to cause a lot of people to run around waving their arms in a frenzy and require medical attention.

And yet, so far, there are no known casualties.

All and all, I think that this (which is sure to be properly re-spun by Apple's Marketing machine in a dozen different ways) is sure to boost iTunes' sales significantly, since folk like myself (who put off purchases until they're sure they can't find the album they want or don't want to mess with DRM) will start factoring in the hassles of tracking down a CD, ripping it, tagging it and tossing it into an iPod.

Because the best thing you can sell these days is convenience. And, since removing DRM is a long-term assurance of said convenience (you'll be able to play those tracks anywhere), my guess is that many people who had so far been put off by the perceived inconvenience of DRM will now step off the fence and start buying music online in a more enthusiastic fashion.

My personal hope is that Apple extends the EMI goodness towards the Portuguese store, which is appallingly limited in some genres.

Of course, the anti-DRM zealots had to show they were paying attention, and quickly gathered into (or started proclaiming their tendency for) two mostly opposing camps: the hippies and the hardliners.

The Hippies

The hippies are, of course, the fickle ones, opinion weather vanes apt to turn around at the drop of a hat to please their followers or simply because they themselves have tried to maintain so many concurrent contradictory opinions regarding all aspects of life that it is by now second nature to them to be inconsistent with themselves.

Perhaps the most notorious example of this is Cory Doctorow, who (as pointed out by John Gruber), went from adulation to pie-in-the-sky mode in three paragraphs flat -

I could not be happier right now. I really hope Apple decides to make a web-based version of the iTunes store so that I can buy iTunes tracks in the future using Ubuntu Linux.

You can stop laughing now.

Now, the reason Apple created their store inside a desktop application was not (just) due to DRM concerns.

The main reason (as I see it) is that they wanted to make the user experience flawless, and that is something you are never going to get out of a desktop browser (let alone one running in a Linux environment).

Of course, this can be viewed merely as a particularly pernicious form of displacement, (in which Cory is merely displacing his fixation on DRM issues towards a fixation on Linux), but I digress.

The Hardliners

Some people are never going to be happy regardless of what Apple does, and I guess we have to understand that. And hardliners are, by definition, people who are only happy when they have something to complain about - either because it is something to complain about or because it is simply against dogma.

Any which way, it is extremely odd to see the anti-DRM hardliners saying that paying US$0.30 more for a better quality recording that you can do whatever you want with is a way to indirectly promote DRM, and watching as they harp on (without a shred of evidence) that DRMed files will always be "the preferred option" by Apple and EMI (even when several passages of both press releases contradict this).

Regardless of dogma, what these people don't understand (I mean, besides the obvious point that they're equally free to not buy DRMed music) is the basic economics of the thing.

Call it revenue assurance, if you will, but marking non-DRMed files slightly upwards of their DRMed cousins is a compromise between giving people what they want and minimizing the losses from someone starting to post whatever they buy in a P2P network.

Because it will happen, and I'm willing to bet that some of the loudest anti-DRM lobbyists will be the first to fire up whatever passes for a Gnutella client these days and (bolstered by their firm belief that music wants to be free, which is the next thing they'll be lobbying for) snarf themselves some nice second-hand AAC music.

Which means there is actually a third camp of anti-DRM Zealots, which happens to partially overlap both of the above. And its designation also starts with an "H".

Now what was that word again? Hyp... Hypocr...?

Ah, yes, Hypocrites. Had it on the tip of my tongue all along.