You may have read recently that DVD Jon is in the news again. This time it's because he's apparently cracked Apple's iTunes DRM, dubbed FairPlay, and instead of opening it to the public as he did previously, this time he's taking the business approach and selling his wares to an iTunes competitor. Why? Presumably, for more competition in the music downloads market.
But we've been here before, right? Remember RealNetwork's Harmony service? RealNetworks wasn't trying to kill Apple's iPod, they just wanted to put their protected music on it, and they came up with a way to do it (and legally via the reverse engineering / interoperability provisions of the DMCA). RealNetworks and PK got a lot of flack for saying it was step forward–but interestingly enough, it didn't come from the anti-DRM folks, no, it was from Apple enthusiasts (or zealots?).
As an Apple fanatic myself, I'm still not sure what people's problem is with a FairPlay-compatible service that provides another way to sell you music that plays on the most popular music/video player, the iPod. Maybe they could sell the songs at a lower cost. Maybe as an all-you-can-eat subscription service. Maybe a thoughtful new business model that we haven't yet realized. But why is it bad that someone provide competition in a market where 88% of legal music downloads are provided by one company?
I could better understand the argument if it came from the defective-by-design folks. Yes, DRM only ends up “keeping the honest people honest,” an argument that has never made sense to me. Honest people are, by definition honest. DRM really only frustrates the honest and law abiding among us, because DRM rarely stops the rest of us from using the content in ways we see fit.
But music isn't required to be DRM'd by the government (today, at least). iTunes and whatever FairPlay-compatible services offer their products and services in the open market place. As long as there are regular CDs sold and online services like Magnatune, MP3tunes.com, Emusic, no one is forcing me to by copy-protected music.
Making fair use of DRM'd files is a related but different question–should it be illegal for me to make fair use of DRM'd files? No, it shouldn't–if you legally obtained it, it should be yours to do with what you want as far as the traditional copyright law allows. However, that doesn't mean that DRM'd content distributors must provide me a way to make fair use. Although it would be pro-consumer, that may be just as bad a tech-mandate as requiring DRM. Apple and some other services do permit fair use by allowing me to burn my tracks to unprotected CDs. If someone creates a more convenient tool for un-DRMing my legally obtained content, so I could use it fairly, there is a increasingly compelling argument that neither that tool, nor it's distribution, should be illegal. Just ask all the people who can't legally play their DVDs on their video-enabled iPods.
But back to DVD Jon and his FairPlay-compatible technology. Is it a good thing that he's paving the way to more competition on the iPod? Yes. Is it be beneficial to the Anti-DRM campaign? Probably not. Will Apple fans hate it? Purely because it's competition for Apple, probably so. Could it help the debate for fair use enabling technologies in the market place? Unless DVD Jon has changed his tune, let's hope the answer is yes.