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Apple iTunes Can Bite My Ass

Friday, November 07, 2003 by Helly || [3 Comments]

And that goes for the rest of the online music distributors

The music business has been reeling of late, their profits disappearing between their piggy little fingers. Peer-to-peer file sharing was the most obvious, highest profile target available; an online wonderland championed by the original Napster featuring millions of users exchanging copies of their favorite music free of charge. To the RIAA, this mini-utopia for file sharers was nothing but theft and piracy. Are they wrong? No, piracy has definitely taken a bite out of their bottom line, but they appear to have singled out only one particular evil upon which to heap all their misfortune. Without getting into a rant about this subject, it strikes me as awfully manipulative of an organization that has been sued by the FTC for price fixing (successfully, I might add) to say that it is their customers who are their own worst enemies. They conveniently neglect to mention mitigating factors for slumping sales such as a decline in physical production of CDs, the decline of label support for new acts and the overall economic downturn. All of these are legitimate reasons for the dropping sales, especially combined with rampant piracy.

As we all know, the RIAA has decided to take the low-ground and sue the hell out of their customer base instead of attempting to find a feasible way to use digital copying and file sharing networks to their advantage (talk about cheap promotional avenues, sheesh!). Their tactics appear to be working, and CNN reported this week that over a million people have deleted all music files off their systems (nothing like expanding the culture of fear in which we already live to keep the rabble in line, eh RIAA?). But other groups have attempted, with grudging support from the RIAA and the 5 major labels they represent, to bring digital music downloads to the Internet masses with online music services. This initially struck me as a wonderful idea, but I was immediately disappointed with the way in which the different services enforced “terms of use”. In short, Digital Rights Management pisses me off, and it should piss you off too.

Apple made their entry into the market with iTunes. Sure, it was only available for Mac platforms, but they promised a Windows version down the road and with the limited market share of the Mac, a success would only be sweeter. By all measures, it was an unparalleled success, with millions of downloads in a very short time. The prices seemed reasonable too: $.99 for a single track and $9.99 for a full CD. Profit margins are no doubt extremely slim (*according to an article on The Register, Steve Jobs has admitted that iTunes, despite its success, makes no money whatsoever. What the RIAA doesn’t take is eaten up by the credit card companies), but at least it proved the concept: this online, paid music download thing could work. With the Windows release of the iTunes concept and software, market share has expanded to another million-plus computers. Their success helped the recent launch of Napster 2.0 seem much more likely to succeed, with similar prices, slightly modified DRM and optional subscription-based service.

Unfortunately, online music services falls apart when you spend more than five seconds looking at the basic concept behind the DRM. Let me be clear on this one subject: DRM is wrong and no one should accept it as a “necessary evil” or the “price of doing business in the digital age”. DRM is simply a corporation's way of manipulating their customers into unfavorable terms of use for products which we've generally had unrestricted access. Consumers must realize that by accepting DRM, we're not creating a new business model for our digital age, but merely giving up the rights and freedoms we've always enjoyed with products we've purchased.

Here's my problem: DRM has no benefit for the consumer. We're being punished. There is no negotiating with DRM, and no room for circumstances beyond what the licensing demands. Large corporations are acting as Dictators who treat their customer base as criminals first and customers second. We're all considered guilty as pirates with no evidence, no trial and no representation. Worst of all, we're expected to be happy about their “generous personal use rights” as if I'm somehow lucky to be able to pay money for music that I can use only in limited fashion.

The conscientious will argue that the artists must be rewarded for their work and that Apples' DRM is very relaxed, considering the alternatives. Indeed, artist’s must be compensated and Apple's DRM is the most lenient of all online music services, but that doesn't make it right. Why should I be treated like a child, or a potential criminal, and limited in my use of something for which I've paid money? Why should I pay for music and then be told that I can only use it on this particular MP3 player, or burn it only this many times to CD, or share it with only this many computers on my network? This takes away my rights to choose. If I choose to buy an iAudio MP3 player because their sound quality is the highest on the market instead of an iPod, why can’t I use the iAudio to listen to these files that I’ve legally purchased? If I want to make a mix CD (which I do regularly) for my own private use, why am I limited to doing this 5 or 10 times? DRM strips me of the rights I once had while the RIAA and their lapdog, Apple, hide behind a scolding veneer trying to make me feel guilty about not accepting DRM.

I want artists to be compensated for their work; however, DRM is not something I’m willing to accept in order to make sure artists get paid. As a writer (and some of you may contest my use of that title), I’d like to be compensated for the works I publish, however I would never want my readers limited in how they can use my book after they purchase a copy. I’m not going to enact some sort of lock on the cover that only allows it to be opened by 5 different individuals, I’m not going to support ink that fades after a year, nor am I going to insist that you can only read the book under the light of a specific manufacturer’s light bulb. Readers would never purchase a copy and libraries wouldn’t stock it on their shelves; music fans ought to adopt the same approach to music restricted with DRM.

There have been other approaches suggested for making sure artists get compensated for their work, such as the introduction of a flat tax that would allow everyone to download music freely while creating a pool of money from which artists would be compensated. I think that concept is much too “pie in the sky”, but at least its an approach that takes the bloated and obsolete beast of the RIAA out of the picture. What we need to do, as consumers, is send a message to RIAA and their corporate lapdogs like Apple and Napster 2.0 that we’re not going to support their music files neutered by DRM. Stop using iTunes and Napster, or don’t use it if you haven’t installed them already.

I’m not advocating that we should all continue to trade music willy-nilly with no thought to fair compensation for the artists. The Wild West days of file trading are over, and we’re now settled in for a nice, long Cold War where file trading moves into more private forums and every new DRM/copy protection scheme is cracked within hours of release. However, I am saying that these first generation music services are offering a flawed product that we should not support nor tolerate. Hey iTunes and the RIAA, want my online business back? Let me download non-DRM infected music files to do with as I please, and I’ll be more than happy to throw some cash your way. Until then, I’m going to restrict my CD purchasing until prices are more reasonable or buy used.

In that vein: if you want to buy music, buy it at your local music retailer. At least then you’ll have a case, liner notes and maybe even a DVD extra. Then make your archival copy, or rip them to the MP3 player of your choice. Maybe you could even make a mix CD for the next road trip, secure in the knowledge that there’s no limit on how many times you can do this. Loan the CD to a friend knowing that it will play for them in their car stereo or home computer without any kind of backend authorization. Revel in the freedom of choice that your money bought and demand that any future downloadable music be free of the virus known as DRM.

And if you truly want to support your favorite artists, go see them in concert (although I think ticket prices are verging on the obscene) – that’s where the majority of artists make their money anyway.

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