The tech world is all abuzz (, ) about Steve Job’s open letter suggesting putting an end to Digital Rights Management for music downloads. The more cynical observe that he only brought up the subject after a number of European national governments (not the EU) started actions of various sorts against Apple due to the perceived “lock-in” that comes from music purchased at Apple’s market leading iTunes online store only being playable on Apple’s iPod.
I’ve always viewed the lock-in argument as one of those odd eruptions to which governments are inexplicably prone when they spot someone having fun without their permission, since it is well known (and Jobs reiterates it in his letter) that the overwhelming majority of music on iPods doesn’t come from iTunes. The number of people that are actually ”locked in” to the iPod is vanishingly small, but that won’t make much difference to the bureaucrats mounting their chargers to redress a perceived injustice inflicted by a large foreign company.
Jobs’s big punchline, of course, is the observation is that Apple is forced into tightly obscured, if not secured, DRM by the demands of the four big music publishers (2.5 of which are European) who control 70% of the market and that the chances of an oxymoronic “open DRM” satisfying them are negligible. Therefore, he posits that the real solution is to remove DRM entirely, particularly since the primary source of music for portable media players is CDs which are not copy protected.
Some of the big four are experimenting with DRM free downloads so there may actually be some room there for a solution, but I’d bet that a more likely result is the offering of goofy “iPod N” editions in the offended nations which lack “for pay” iTunes music access, just like the European mandated Windows XP and Vista N editions lack Microsoft’s Media Player. Whatever the solution turns out to be in Europe, it presumably will apply equally to all the other online music distributors including Microsoft since they have the same licensing restrictions. However, an “open DRM” might be even more annoying to them due their offering of subscription licenses unlike Apple. I don’t think Microsoft really wants to figure out the infrastructure to securely swap a Zune Pass with some arbitrary other vendor’s unit.
Perhaps a more interesting question for Microsoft are the implications of the possible audio DRM solutions for video DRM where the market is more fragmented, but where Microsoft provides the technology for many of the current video download competitors (e.g. see Wal-Mart’s announcement this week). Since there is no source of quality DRM-free movie content, it is harder to make the no DRM case and since Microsoft is nearly a de facto standard, maybe the bureaucrats will decide that Microsoft should publish full interoperability information. Where have I heard that one before?