The DRM Beat Goes On

We wrote last week about the increasingly heated debate over DRM copy protection, with everybody from Steve Jobs to the RIAA weighing in on the subject. This week was just as wild and whacky on that front.

On February 7, Eli Harari, CEO of SanDisk Corporation, published his own "open letter", which said, "the answer is to protect the interests of everyone involved, not to chastise rights holders for trying to safeguard the entertainment they create and support." Surprise, surprise, SanDisk has a solution to proprietary DRM protection systems: "Its Sansa line of MP3 players… connect to many major online music stores, including Rhapsody, Napster, URGE, Yahoo! Music, emusic, and Best Buy Digital Music Store. Users purchasing songs from those services can also play them on many non-SanDisk devices. SanDisk and our partners have full support from the four major music companies, and we believe our offering is no less secure than closed systems."

"Closed systems," of course, is a reference to Apple's FairPlay, which is not compatible with, say, Sansa or Windows' PlaysForSure. Harari said, "What’s more, the decision on using digital rights management (DRM) should rest with the music industry, not with device makers."

February 16 brought a Macrovision Corporation letter addressed to "Steve Jobs and the Digital Entertainment Industry." Fred Amoroso, CEO and president of Macrovision, starts by "thanking Steve Jobs for offering his provocative perspective on the role of digital rights management (DRM)...and bringing to the forefront an issue of great importance to both the industry and consumers." Macrovision, of course has been designing DRM technology since 1984, so it comes as no surprise that Amoroso is in favor of it.

Amoroso takes Jobs to task for focusing just on music, DRM is broader than that, he says, calling DRM "an important enabler across all content, including movies, games, and software." DRM "increases consumer value," Amoroso argues, because "abandoning DRM now will unnecessarily doom all consumers to a 'one size fits all' situation that will increase costs for many of them" (alluding to the so-far-undiscussed possibility of selling "single-use" licenses for less than cross-platform formats). Amoroso also claims that DRM will increase electronic distribution, but only if it is interoperable and open (another dig at FairPlay).

Amoroso ends with this: "With such an enjoyable and revolutionary experience within our grasp, we should not minimize the role that DRM can and should play in enabling the transition to electronic content distribution. Without reasonable, consistent, and transparent DRM we will only delay the availability of premium content in the home. As an industry, we should not let that happen."

So basically, Macrovision's position is that we need more DRM, not less. What a shocker.

That's not a view shared by the majority of European music executives, according to a Jupiter Research poll. As reported by the BBC, the poll, conducted among "leading content owners and technology providers" between December 2006 and January 2007, found that 54% of the music executives polled felt current DRM was "too restrictive" and 62% thought that dropping DRM, enabling music files to be played on any MP3 player, would boost the sales of digital music overall.

A similar number (70%) felt that downloadable music's future was bound to the ability to use files across platforms, although a hefty 40% felt this was not likely unless there was government or sustained consumer action demanding it.

Answers did depend on where within the industry the executives worked, however. Record labels execs were less likely (48%) to support dropping DRM than those involved in other sectors (73%).

Jupiter analyst Mark Mulligan told the BBC, "Despite everything that has been happening, the record labels are not about to drop DRM. Even though all they are doing is making themselves look even less compelling by using it." He also had an interesting take on why so few consumers "were troubled by DRM." It's because Apple so completely dominates the market, he said.


Deliciously snarky tech-geek website had perhaps the week's final word on the subject in its "DRM: the state of disrepair." Engadget posted a helpful crib sheet listing all the current DRM schemes that have already been breached, which is worth the visit by itself.

But the best part was when Engadget threw down a challenge to the guy that started this round of "flaccid finger pointing" when he said, "DRMs haven't worked, and may never work, to halt music piracy."

"But those aren't the only thoughts on music we've been having, of late," said Engadget. "With last year's acquisition of Pixar, Steve Jobs became the single largest shareholder in the Walt Disney Company, the media megacorp he helps to steer from his seat on the board of directors. Walt Disney Company media runs throughout Jobs' iTunes: Apple sells Disney-owned music by artists on Hollywood Records, Lyric Street Records, Mammoth Records, and Walt Disney Records; Disney-owned TV shows from its ABC, ESPN, A&E, and History Channel networks; and, of course, movies from Disney-owned studios like Disney, Pixar, Touchstone, and Miramax. So why is all of that content still sold on iTunes with DRM? Really, we'd like to know, because that's an environment Steve does have some control over, a place where he could drop DRM 'in a heartbeat.'

"...We join the EFF and 'DVD' Jon Lech Johansen to urge Apple to take the first step—strip the DRM from the independent label and Disney-owned music, TV, and movie content in the iTunes Store. Show the 'Big Four' you mean business...and we'll all reward you with ours."

Actually, we couldn't have put it better ourselves. Anything less, in fact, will force us to conclude that Mr. Jobs' "thoughts" were a calculated ploy by a company under attack by European litigators to shift the pressure to a different locus.