Today, at the annual MacWorld conference in San Francisco, Apple Inc. senior vice president of worldwide product marketing, Phil Shiller, announced that by the end of this quarter, the iTunes Store’s entire catalog of digital music will be sold without Digital Rights Management (DRM). As of today, 8 million of the 10 million songs sold by the iTunes Store are available sans DRM, with the remaining 2 million to follow suit during the coming months. This announcement has been a long time coming from Apple; the company’s CEO, Steve Jobs, penned an open letter to the music industry in February of 2007, calling for an end to DRM mandates for online music retailers, though only one of the “Big Four” record labels, EMI, answered his call in the weeks that followed. This time around, it seems that Apple was forced to make a concession in order to cast off the record industry’s DRM requirements. As followers of Apple’s negotiations with the recording industry will note, variable pricing for songs–an item that has long topped record executive’s wish lists–was also announced today at MacWorld and will be implemented in April. Though it remains to be seen whether labels will seek to fully exploit this new variable pricing model, Apple’s DRM announcement marks a turning point in the battle against DRM. But the war is far from over.
As far as online music sales go (subscription services exempted), Apple’s iTunes Store is essentially the final and largest domino to fall. Its competitors have been selling DRM-free MP3s for months–Amazon.com, for example, launched a DRM-free music store in September 2007 and now offers more than 5 million songs in an unprotected MP3 format. Apple’s announcement is still significant, however, for two reasons. First, Apple is far and away the world’s largest online music retailer–the company has sold more than 5 billion songs online and currently stands as the second largest music retailer in the U.S. behind Wal-Mart. Second, Apple is also the producer of the most popular line of digital media players on the market and until recently, used this market power to restrict consumer choice. FairPlay, the DRM used by Apple, is a proprietary technology and Apple has refused to license it to other companies. What this means for the consumer is that FairPlay-encoded songs purchased from the iTunes Store will only play on Apple iPods. If you’ve built up a collection of music by purchasing tracks from the iTunes Store and decide that you’d like to switch to another brand of digital media player, too bad–those files will only play on an iPod or iPhone.
Thankfully, with this announcement, Apple has offered consumers a way out of its closed ecosystem. Starting today, users will be able to “upgrade” most of the songs in their music libraries to DRM-free tracks for the nominal fee of $0.30 per song (users could previously do this with tracks offered by EMI and a handful of indie labels). While that’s not ideal, it offers a far better alternative to the two previous options: repurchasing that song or downloading it illegally.
While Apple and the Big Four should be applauded for bringing DRM-free music to the masses (it’s worth noting that indie labels of all sizes have long offered DRM-free downloads as a matter of course), there’s still much work to be done by the anti-DRM crusade. As Cory Doctorow notes over at Boing Boing, Apple still sells DRM-encoded movies, TV shows and audiobooks. While this is, likely, more the fault of the content owners than Apple, one would hope that other sectors of the entertainment industry will get the message soon enough. As we have seen, DRM isn’t just an inconvenience; it can cause a whole host of complications, ranging from interoperability to accessibility issues. On the music side, users have roundly rejected DRM and the major labels have had no choice but to respond. One can only imagine that the same will happen with other media formats, in due time.