A long time ago there were many record companies. They gobbled each other up and eventually there were just four – Universal Music Group, Sony BMG Music Entertainment, EMI Group and Warner Music Group. Between them, they own most of the labels and control 75% of the market.
And then came Apple with its iTunes Music Store download service and iPod playback device. Apple used to be a computer company. Now it sells music downloads. (Of course Apple still makes computers, but between downloads and computers, you have to wonder which is the tail and which is the dog.)
Apple doesn't work as a record company; it licenses tracks from the established record companies. But if it set up its own A&R and marketing departments, everything would be in place for Apple to do that.
Apple currently virtually owns the market for legal downloads, with some reports pitching its share higher than 80%. But with this kind of power comes the potential for abuse.
If you buy a track from iTunes, you can only play it on your iPod, or your computer with iTunes software installed. You can authorize up to five computers to play your music.
What you can't do however is copy your music to a non-iPod playback device. Nor can you play iTunes tracks with Windows Media Player. You can burn a CD and rip it back into another playback software or device, but then the track will have been through two encode-decode cycles and the quality will be degraded.
Clearly Apple is using its dominant position to control the market. If you want to get involved with iTunes and play your music on a portable device, you have to buy an iPod. Simple as that.
But now in France, not known for being a leading country in digital rights but now perhaps blazing a trail ahead of all of the other major music-buying countries of the world, something is happening…
The French parliament has backed a bill that, if enacted, will force Apple to open up their 'FairPlay' digital rights management system so that music downloaded from iTunes will play on any device. So you wouldn't need to have an iPod; just download tracks from the iTunes Music Store and copy them to whatever device you have or prefer.
What does Apple have to say about this…?
Or in full…”The French implementation of the EU Copyright Directive will result in state-sponsored piracy. If this happens, legal music sales will plummet just when legitimate alternatives to piracy are winning over customers. iPod sales will likely increase as users freely load their iPods with 'interoperable' music which cannot be adequately protected. Free movies for iPods should not be far behind in what will rapidly become a state-sponsored culture of piracy.”
Well, that's what Apple says. This is what it means…
“We are enjoying our currently dominant position and we intend to keep things this way. We will taint any initiative that benefits the consumer at our expense with the slur of 'piracy'. We do not want, and will threaten to withdraw our services if necessary, people buying music from us and then not being compelled to buy our playback device.”
That's what Apple means.
Opening up iTunes tracks to other playback devices doesn't mean that DRM disappears. The French are going for interoperability, not freedom from DRM. However, if Apple is right and interoperable DRM isn't workable, then downloads would become effectively DRM-free as people found ways around it.
But Apple and the record companies concern themselves unnecessarily with digital rights management. It seems as though it is all they ever think about – do they ever get time to think about music?
The reality is that as soon as digital music is opened up and becomes DRM-free, the market will simply explode. Tracks will have to be priced at a level that makes the convenience of legally downloading more attractive than sourcing a copy from a friend or network. But people will buy so much music that the record companies will be awash with cash as never before. And the odd illegal share or download won't matter.
Of course Apple will cease to be dominant as the market evens out, but it will still make a hell of a lot of money from downloads.
So, over to you… is iTunes/iPod/digital rights management OK exactly as it is? Or do you want to play your music on any device of your choosing?
As a creative musician, how will it affect you if the French bill is enacted and becomes a role model for the world?