Apple Starts Selling DRM-Free Music

Walking the Talk

Critics of Apple CEO Steve Jobs' recent open letter Thoughts on Music will be pleased that he now has the opportunity to put his money where his mouth is.

Today EMI Music announced that their entire music catalogue will be available DRM-Free through iTunes Music Store next month, for 30 cents more than the regular copy protected tracks. The DRM-free tracks, though more expensive, will be of higher quality. Entire DRM-free albums purchased will be sold at the same price as currently protected albums on the store. The new premium DRM-free tracks will be presented as an option to music shoppers, and not a replacement for all EMI music.

Can Jobs do no right?

Despite some small exceptions (eg. a few Nettwerk and other assorted independent label songs) it really is up to the major lables whether to allow DRM-free distribution via iTunes (since Apple is clearly willing), as this announcement by EMI shows. Jobs stated "Apple will reach out to all the major and independent labels to give them the same opportunity" and indicated that half of all iTunes songs would be avaialbe DRM-free by the end of the year. Let's see if the reaction from anti-DRM advocates is as vociferously negative to this announcement as it was to Thoughts on Music.

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Jobs isn't doing right...

As you expected, those who are opposed to DRM aren't going to be satisfied with what Jobs has done. In a BBC article on this topic Jobs clearly states that the move to remove DRM on music by recording labels (someone else's business) was not a precursor to a similar step in the video market (which Jobs himself is involved in). It is not his money that he is putting where his mouth is, but someone else's.

"The music and video markets are not parallel. The video industry does not deliver 90% of its content DRM-free."

A clear us-vs-them strategy between markets Jobs is in (hardware/software manufacturing, online multimedia stores, video content) and markets he is not (recorded music).

His claim still seems to be aimed at deflecting the blame for DRM away from the DRM manufacturers like himself, and put it on this party markets he is not involved in (recorded music). If hardware vendors refused to produce hardware that locked out their owners, then the question wouldn't exist at all. Some will believe Jobs deflection, and some will not. You are in the former group, and I am in the latter ;-)

Note: The primary problem for competing hardware vendors and software authors isn't the existence of DRM, but the legal protection of DRM. Until current DRM vendors work to eradicate the legal protection for locks on our hardware, then we won't be distracted by their smoke-and-mirrors asking us to "pay no attention to the hardware/software vendor behind the curtain".

Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) consultant.

Correction: Jobs NEVER does right....

Let's put aside the fact that Jobs sold his only controlling ownership in the video market (Pixar) to Disney last year, and so no longer has much control of policy there. He does now sit on Disney's board, but I have as little idea as anyone else what he tries to convince other board members there about DRM - I won't assume anything, but I will let you assume the worst of course :-)

I noticed you were unashamedly critical of Jobs' Thoughts on Music, principally because you didn't believe Jobs was being honest in saying he wanted to sell music DRM-free, and not because you disagreed with what he said (a few exceptions noted). Most in the anti-DRM camp also agreed with the core of his main point: DRM does not work, sell music without it. But now that EMI is allowing its music to be sold DRM-free and Jobs is putting his money where his mouth is, I noticed you quietly sidestepped the main issue that he is doing what he said he would, and instead you complain that he hasn't called for an end to DRM on video as well. Can we never savour our victories? If by some miracle he manages to start selling video DRM-free on iTunes tomorrow too, will you start complaing that you can't run Linux on the upcoming iPhone?

For many in the anti-DRM crowd, Steve Jobs is the case of the Boy Who Cried Wolf in reverse: No matter what he says and does to back it up, they'll never beleive him. Luckily, the public in general is supporting Jobs' de facto campaign for more user rights with somthing much more effective than vitriol: their pocketbooks.


As someone who has followed Apple as long as I followed Microsoft, with neither of them being that relevant in the early 1980's, I guess I see things differently. I had an Apple II clone (along with Commodore and Timex hardware), and thought it was great that Steve+Steve released schematics of this computer so that hobbiests could tinker and competitors could grow as well as them.

All the hardware I purchased at that time came with full schematics, and from this I launched my self-directed computing education.

"Open Source" hardware that protected the freedom to tinker, far more than a decade before the term "Open Source" was coined and applied to software.

Silly/naive me -- I thought that this would remain the norm in computing, and that the next generations would grow up with even more freedom than I had. Not only would they have the freedom to tinker their own hardware, but also legally modify the system software as well. I hadn't even heard of Stallman and the Free Software movement yet, discovering them in the early 90's.

When the Macintosh came around, that all changed with Apple. Apple became a very proprietary-focused company, and in both the hardware and software. There were brief moments of a competitive hardware market which Apple would allow and then crush. About the time of the "look and feel" lawsuits, many software developers were upset at the very controlling nature of Apple. Both customers and developers moved to the (comparatively more) open platform offered by Microsoft. Microsoft Windows would run on a whole growing clone market for hardware, and getting access to developer information was much easier.

Fast-forward and we see that Microsoft became the hated monopoly, but they differ from Apple not in their goals but in their success. Microsoft has been (until the whole DRM issue, which is now affecting the ability to write drivers for our hardware) a far easier to manage monopolist than Apple would have been, as they only tried to control the software platform. The same hardware that one would use to run Microsoft Windows could be used to run alternative operating systems.

Yes, you can run alternate operating systems on Mac hardware, but that is not because Apple wants this to happen, but because (again, until the DRM issue), Apple had no legal standing to deny owners the right to do so. Apple wants to make sure that legal protection of DRM stays on the books, and this motivation must be factored into analysing anything Apple does.

There is a growing Apple fan-base that forgets that history, and thus will have nasty things to say about vendors like Microsoft that they won't equally say about Apple. In my case I evaluate all of these vendors equally and look at their history.

I am not going to be distracted by gestures to avoid anti-trust litigation in various countries as being anything more than following necessary rules. The worst case situation for Apple would be if policy makers understood that the competitive problems they saw were legally protected by the anti-circumvention legislation (legal protection for DRM) which they recently passed, and the legislators withdrew or weakened that legislation. If he deflects the blame for DRM onto the copyright holders, and is seen to just be "following" the wishes of the copyright holders with the music store, then this investigation into their practises ceases.

The folks at these vendors are extremely smart, and it shouldn't be surprising that the powerful marketing minds at Apple will be able to spin legal compliance to being heros that should be granted some competitive advantage.

What Steve Jobs has done is a win for our community in much the same way that the Sony-BMG RootKit being exposed was a win for us. The Sony-BMG case caused people to direct their attention where it should be, which is on the software that runs on our hardware and not the distraction of how digital content is encoded. For that I will always be thankful to Sony. Apple has been demonstrating for many people the harm that can be caused by the platform monopoly created by DRM, causing legislators the world over to take a closer look at iTunes.

The move that EMI has made demonstrates that the harm caused by DRM is even visible to the largest proponents of DRM in the recording industry. EMI is big enough for Apple to publicly respond and gain public relations benefits, even while Apple has been ignoring the pleas from the independent labels to distribute their music DRM-free for a long time.

Steve Jobs has done what he said he would in his open letter when it comes to the major labels. I don't know how that changes the analysis, but if it helps for people to say this publicly then there we go. I even highlighted it like you did ;-)

A decade from now we may be talking about a different group of monopolist vendors, or possibly still talking about some swing back-and-forth between Apple and Microsoft. I doubt the overall tone will have changed, the tone of the fans of each of the vendors, nor the types of tactics being used by the major players.

I hope you are wrong in thinking that "the public in general is supporting Jobs", as that would just lead to another flip-flop in the marketplace where people moved their support from one monopolist to another. Many people perceive Microsoft Vista as being primarily a DRM platform that disallows them from tinkering, and may mistakenly believe that a move to Apple will allow them more freedom.

Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) consultant.

The Lefsetz Letter / Europe

Curious what you think about this article in The Lefsetz Letter?

And, as predicted: EU Formally Charges Apple, Record Labels. This is not stated as directly related to the DRM issue, although there are connections. Apple was likely aware of the wide variety of issues that concerned the European Commission, and is wanting to avoid some of them.

Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) consultant.

Pricing thoughts

What I find interesting is the pricing - it seems reasonable to me that a DRM-free track should cost more than a DRM-crippled one, simply because you can do more with it.

From the supplier side, though, it's more interesting. They presumably make more money from the sale, and they don't have to pay licensing fees for the DRM itself. I would imagine that they're cheaper to produce, too (no "add the DRM" step). Put that together with a larger market, and the fact that the only downside (tracks appearing on the p2p networks) also happens for tracks they only sell with DRM, and it starts to look very attractive from a business perspective.

Shame that we can still compare the pricing with CDs, really...

You're right, they don't

You're right, they don't have to pay licensing fees,
and that is a good .

Paulo da letras