Apple CEO Steve Jobs has made a surprise call for the end of digital rights management technology, which is designed to stop copyrighted music from being shared illicitly. Jobs says Apple would sell only DRM-free music on iTunes if it could.
The revelation came in an open letter published on Apple’s Web site, which largely responds to concerns over DRM that have come from European countries such as Norway and France. Jobs offers three possible outcomes for the future, but highlights the abandonment of DRM by record companies as the best possible solution for consumers.
Because Apple leads the digital music market by a huge margin in both song downloads and hardware players with the iPod, legislators have told the company it needs to make iTunes compatible with competitors. Norway went so far as to declare the iPod illegal last month, as it locks users into buying music only from iTunes.
Jobs explains in the letter that Apple has determined it cannot open up its FairPlay DRM technology to others, because doing so would open the door for hackers. When negotiating terms with record labels, Jobs says, Apple was forced to stipulate that FairPlay would remain secure or the labels could pull their music from iTunes immediately.
The FairPlay DRM has been cracked in the past, but Apple has been quick to issue updates that close any loophole. “There is no theory of protecting content other than keeping secrets. In other words, even if one uses the most sophisticated cryptographic locks to protect the actual music, one must still “hide” the keys which unlock the music on the user’s computer or portable music player. No one has ever implemented a DRM system that does not depend on such secrets for its operation,” Jobs writes.
If Apple were to open FairPlay to third party manufacturers and music stores, controlling those secrets would be impossible, he adds. Referring to the Zune, Jobs adds, “Perhaps this same conclusion contributed to Microsoft’s recent decision to switch their emphasis from an “open” model of licensing their DRM to others to a “closed” model of offering a proprietary music store, proprietary jukebox software and proprietary players.”
Another solution moving forward is to continue on the same path, where companies sell music designed for specific players and protected by closed DRM systems. Microsoft, Sony and Apple all do this Jobs notes. He downplays “lock-in” concerns by explaining that only 22 songs are purchased from iTunes for every iPod sold, which indicates that the vast majority of iPods are filled with non-DRM music.
But the most controversial idea for the future is one Jobs says would create the best environment for both the marketplace and consumers alike: “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,” Jobs writes. “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.”
He explains that most music is still sold on CDs, which have no built-in DRM technologies and can be freely copied and shared over the Internet. “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.”
Jobs concludes his letter with a swipe at European regulators, noting that two and a half of the big four music labels are located in Europe, and says, “those unhappy with the current situation should redirect their energies towards persuading the music companies to sell their music DRM-free…Convincing them to license their music to Apple and others DRM-free will create a truly interoperable music marketplace. Apple will embrace this wholeheartedly.”