Steve Jobs has suggested that record companies should drop DRM (Digital Rights Management) and simply sell downloaded music in an unprotected form. This would allow users of iPods to download from anywhere, and also users of other MP3 players to buy from the iTunes store (which still hasn't launched in Hong Kong).
I am using emusic, who operate in exactly this way, but only have deals with so-called 'independent' record labels. They offer a number of subscription plans, and any music you download is free of all DRM and can be played or copied without restriction.
To find music, I use Pandora, who allow you to set up your own 'radio station', based on one or more artists or songs, and then refine the selection by giving a 'thumbs up' or 'thumbs down' to the songs they play you. You need a US zip code to register, but that's not a problem. So far, so good, and unlike Musicmatch they haven't played me a single Bjork song.
What I need now is a link from Pandora to emusic so that I can buy songs I like. Currently they only have links to iTunes and Amazon, and presumably they earn something if you buy after clicking on the link.
The major record labels to have responded Mr Jobs by suggesting that Apple should licence FairPlay (their DRM) to other companies. If you believe DRM is the answer, then obviously having one industry standard is the best solution. Ho hum. Microsoft tried this with Plays For Sure, but hilariously they decided not to use it for their own Zune player, which instead has its own DRM.
The problem with DRM is not just that there are different versions, it's that it's simply not possible to 'protect' music without annoying your customers. Yes, there are usually ways of overcoming the DRM restrictions, but they make things more difficult - and sometimes these tricks are not much different from what you do to defeat DRM completely. So if you force people to find ways round the restrictions, you encourage them to break your DRM.
Jobs has been accused of saying this because Apple is under attack in Europe for using the combination of iPod, iTunes & FairPlay to stifle competition, as the BBC reports:
The European Commission says the many different DRM systems should work together. Some member states, such as France, have already approved new laws that could force companies like Apple to share its digital technology with rivals.
Writing on his blog, Mark Mulligan, an analyst at Jupiter Research, believes that this is the real reason Mr Jobs has chosen now to speak. "Apple can see that the legislative tide is turning in Europe," he wrote.
iPods face competition from firms such as Creative. "Come the summer Apple could find itself in the untenable situation of ticking off an increasing number of markets where it could no longer sell digital music. So Jobs et al have taken a strategic decision that now is the time that they can do better without DRM than with."
Others say Apple has nothing to lose from coming out in favour of dumping DRM. "It is not risking their business model at all," said Paul Jackson, principal analyst at Forrester Research. Apple makes most of its money from selling hardware like the iPod. It makes very little selling music through iTunes.
"The only slight risk is raising the awareness to people buying music from iTunes that they are so tied in to the system. But to be honest most people buying from iTunes don't care."
Others argue that Mr Job's statement is a convenient way of shifting the blame for using DRM onto the record labels.
Yes, but surely it is the record companies who are to blame for DRM. The question is how long it will be before they realize their mistake. Until then, it's emusic for me.