Jobs’ shot over the big four’s bow
Jobs’ shot over the big four’s bow
Jobs’ shot over the big four’s bow

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    Today, Steve Jobs posted his “Thoughts on Music” on the Apple website. In this blog-like post, Mr. Jobs seems to be addressing a few concerns: 1. the shunning of the iPod-and-iTunes-Store-media-juggernaut by number of European countries; 2. the recent predictions of the demise of DRM; and 3. the perpetual need for Apple to relicense music from the labels for iTunes Store distribution. Policy statements from Apple are highly unusual, so perhaps this one could use some special attention.

    In his post, Jobs contemplates the future of DRM and three paths forward: 1. status-quo: Apple, Sony, and Microsoft perpetuate their non-interoperable DRM & device silos; 2. require interoperable DRM among platforms; 3. ask the major record labels to license music without DRM to all.

    Jobs seems to be fine with option 1, without conceding that DRM lock-in is truly a problem (as 97% of the music on the average iPod is DRM'd). He dispatches option 2 claiming DRM is hard enough to keep secure when its workings are secret; building interoperability while maintaining protection would be an exercise in futility.

    Option 3 is one that Apple would embrace “wholeheartedly,” if only the major labels would, too. In his discussion he writes that

    “…DRMs haven't worked, and may never work, to halt music piracy. Though the big four music companies require that all their music sold online be protected with DRMs, these same music companies continue to sell billions of CDs a year which contain completely unprotected music.”

    Note Jobs' careful choice of words–DRM in general isn't without purpose, however, for protecting music against piracy it may be. What about DRM'd video? Also, keep in mind that DRM is used by iTunes Store competitors to support music renting; a DRM-free market would essentially eliminate the rental models.

    In option 3, Jobs also responds to the European complaints, suggesting those nations point the blame at the mostly European-owned major record labels.

    So that was the quick-ish rundown on the letter. What do we learn by reading between the lines? Unfortunately, more questions than answers. Why did Jobs really write this letter? Is Apple, the media-market leader, really heralding the death of DRM, and with it the end of its competitors business models? Was the post written to address the hypocrisy of the European countries or the “Big Four”, or to play-up to growing consumer concerns? Is Jobs' option 3 daring the majors to call his bluff? Lastly, why does this post specifically single-out DRM'd music, not on other media like videos that are also offered via the iTunes Store?