The DMCA vs. Interoperability, Part 2

by on November 18, 2005 · 2 comments

Here’s yet another example of how DRM is leading to pointless balkanization of the media marketplace:

Apple has been loath to license its FairPlay DRM, used to protect songs sold from the iTunes Music Store. That has been a sticking point for record companies, which yearn to provide iPod compatibility for their copy-protected discs. EMI–in the news earlier today for announcing Apple would be raising the price on some downloads–is now saying that it anticipates supporting the iPod with its DRMed discs.

“Apple is nearly finished with the technical work necessary to enable consumers to transfer music from content-protected discs to their iPods,” the label said in a statement detailing its copy-protection plans. “This is an important step for EMI and Apple, but even more so for music consumers who will soon be able to legitimately port music from protected discs they own to the iPod.”

It would be an important step, if it were about to happen. When asked about EMI’s statement however, Apple said in so many words that it wants to know what EMI is smoking and where it can get some, stating that there’s no agreement in place and none on the horizon.

Keep in mind that there’s absolutely no technical barrier to putting music from “unprotected” CDs (i.e. the CDs they’ve been selling for two decades) on an iPod. What Apple is refusing to do is to support EMI’s proprietary copy-protection format, or to allow EMI to use FairPlay, Apple’s proprietary copy-protection format. If that means consumers can’t play their legally purchased music on their iPod, that’s just too bad for them.

The worst thing about this particular pissing match is that it’s doing practically nothing to prevent piracy. After all, CD-based copy protection doesn’t make it impossible to upload songs to peer-to-peer networks, it just makes it irritating. As Ed Felten has reported, when consumers complained to Sony BMG that they couldn’t import their copy-protected CDs into iTunes, Sony actually told them how to use Windows Media Player to burn an unprotected audio CD. That audio CD can then be “ripped” into iTunes and transferred to an iPod. But of course, that audio CD can also be “ripped” to MP3 format and uploaded to KaZaa. So what was the point of having the copy-protection in the first place?

To put it bluntly, the labels are in denial. Their shiny new DRM schemes aren’t doing a thing to stop piracy, but the possibility that DRM can’t work is too horrifying to take seriously. So instead, they’re continuing to cripple their own products in the hope that somehow, inconveniencing their paying customers will teach the pirates a lesson. At some point, it will dawn on them that this brick wall isn’t going to fall down no matter how many times they bang their head against it.

Of course, if it weren’t for the DMCA, someone would write a utility to circumvent EMI’s copy-protection and convert the songs to an open format like MP3. But instead we have to wait for “the market” to sell us the right to put our legally purchased music on our iPods.

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