Steve Jobs: "Let the music be free"

Digital rights management is a joke. A manifesto from Apple's CEO.

Published February 6, 2007 9:00PM (EST)

When Boing Boing and the Wall Street Journal both compete, within seconds, to tell me what Steve Jobs just posted on the Apple Web site, I take notice. And when it applies directly to something that I have been covering as a journalist for 10 years, it is difficult to contain myself. So, even if you're likely to see this news everywhere, here it is again. In an essay titled "Thoughts on Music," Apple's CEO declares that a world where every online store sold music free of any digital rights management restrictions would "clearly be the best alternative for consumers, and Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat."

Read the whole thing yourself. But the meat is here:

The third alternative is to abolish DRMs entirely. Imagine a world where every online store sells DRM-free music encoded in open licensable formats. In such a world, any player can play music purchased from any store, and any store can sell music which is playable on all players. This is clearly the best alternative for consumers, and Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat. If the big four music companies would license Apple their music without the requirement that it be protected with a DRM, we would switch to selling only DRM-free music on our iTunes store. Every iPod ever made will play this DRM-free music.

Why would the big four music companies agree to let Apple and others distribute their music without using DRM systems to protect it? The simplest answer is because 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. Thatb

In 2006, under 2 billion DRM-protected songs were sold worldwide by online stores, while over 20 billion songs were sold completely DRM-free and unprotected on CDs by the music companies themselves. The music companies sell the vast majority of their music DRM-free, and show no signs of changing this behavior, since the overwhelming majority of their revenues depend on selling CDs which must play in CD players that support no DRM system.

So if the music companies are selling over 90 percent of their music DRM-free, what benefits do they get from selling the remaining small percentage of their music encumbered with a DRM system? There appear to be none.

Two years ago, I wrote that even if one sympathized with recording industry executives and their attempts to stop music piracy, you still had to concede that their cause was hopeless.

... The entertainment industry will not succeed in its efforts to stop widespread piracy. New distribution protocols will continue to be devised and people will continue to use them. It only gets easier to copy and distribute content. It never gets harder. Digital-rights-management software will continue to be cracked as soon as it appears. Or it will simply be irrelevant. Even the DRM software included in, say, Apple's iTunes, is a joke. I can buy a new album by the Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A. on iTunes, burn it to a CD, and then rip that CD into DRM-free MP3s and make it available for sharing on a P2P network in a matter of minutes.

Of course, Steve Jobs knew this as well as anyone. It's still nice to hear him come right out and say it.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Apple Globalization How The World Works Music Steve Jobs