Thursday, August 03, 2006

Apple, iTunes and problems that don't exist

Recently countries and advocacy groups in the European Union (most notably Norway and France) are making a visible effort to try to get Apple to open their digital rights management (DRM) on songs downloaded through iTunes - which currently sync and play directly only on Apple's own iPod music players (and in iTunes on a computer of course). These groups demand that Apple allow songs downloaded to iTunes be able to play on any digital music (MP3) player.

As they say: "I bought the song, I should be able to play it anywhere I want" - a similar argument currently being made in the DVD video world where DVDs are copy-protected and cannot legally be copied, backed-up, or converted to any other format. And that battle has thus far been lost by consumers.

But is the Apple situation the same? Does Apple really restrict you from playing your purchased music elsewhere?

What does Apple specifically say about songs downloaded to iTunes?
Burn songs onto an unlimited number of CDs for your personal use, sync music to an unlimited number of iPods and play songs purchased from the iTunes Music Store on up to five Macs or Windows PCs.
Wait a second... did that just say Burn songs onto an unlimited number of CDs...? Why yes, I think it did.

In other words, Apple's model is (and Apple claims) that iTunes itself is the "player destination" for songs downloaded through Apple's Music Store. And, Apple provides people with the additional ability to copy these songs directly to an Apple iPod or to burn their purchased songs to CD - for playing on other devices (i.e. CD players) or to rip back into any other format for any other digital device - without limit.

So... where is the problem with this?

The crux of the argument is that Apple, and its iTunes implementation, doesn't make it automatic (or easy) to directly sync your songs purchased (or managed) through iTunes to a non-iPod portable device.

My comment is: Yeah, well, so what? That wasn't Apple's claim either. They have never claimed you could use any MP3 player with iTunes - even though they do provide you the steps to accomplish it. There's no false advertising or fraud here - simply whiney people who cry foul if their gratification isn't immediate and instantly obtained.

Although I'd argue it is easily obtained, depending on your definition of easy. Easy does not mean instantaneous.

First of all, let's state again the basic fact that Apple does not prohibit you from converting your purchased music downloads from proprietary copy-protected format into generic MP3 files that can be played on any other player. They simply make you jump through two hoops first: 1) You must write the file(s) to a CD, and then 2) you'll need to rip the CD back to MP3 format - which by the way can be done in iTunes. A process which takes a matter of minutes.

So let's compare that to the devious process currently undertaken by Music companies of selling music on CDs. You can't play those CDs on your MP3 player, or for that matter on your cassette tape player. In both instances you need to run through a conversion process.

Are we taking recording labels to task for not providing a format that can be played in both CD players and tape machines? Of course not - and you'd say I'm an idiot for suggesting it. But is that really any different? Apple's iTunes files are simply in a format that must be converted through a process to get them to a different player.

The only credible argument, if there is one, is that one of the steps includes burning a CD, instead of it all being done directly. But when you realize that burning a CD today takes about 10 minutes, and re-ripping it as MP3 files takes maybe another 10 minutes, you have to wonder where the crime is here. Heck, copying a CD to tape takes the full duration of the CD (60+ minutes).

The reality is that the whiners aren't really fighting DRM, they're whining about having to expend a little time and effort to not use Apple's product (for which iTunes was designed mind you) - and the effort is supported by Apple itself and is perfectly legal. Wow, I'm convinced of the urgency of this issue - aren't you? I feel class-action lawsuit fever coming on.

Oh, and as you may have already guessed... Apple's method even makes it just as easy for people to illegally share music (not something I'm condoning). Once you've ripped back to MP3 you can file-share to your heart's content, or at least until the RIAA catches you.

And let's not forget one other very important thing here. We're dealing with software and digital file formats. Just as software is readily available today to allow you to defeat the absolutely ludicrous and restrictive DRM and copy-protection on DVD video, so software will inevitably be available to make conversion/syncing from iTunes to other formats easier.

If, that is, there is truly a perceived need.

Maybe the reason this doesn't currently exist is that the people who make their livelihoods off of making slick utilities like these don't seem to see the problem - like I don't. But hey, only time will tell.

Until then, the whiners - and their lawyers - will continue to cry about problems that don't really exist.



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