Thoughts on Steve Jobs’ Desire to Abolish DRMs

by Chris Howard Feb 07, 2007

In a surprise and welcome move, Steve Jobs has posted an article, Thoughts on Music, on the Apple website explaining Apple’s position on Digital Rights Management (DRM) of music purchased online and what it would like to see in the future. For those who think Apple is a megalomanic corporation focused on making money, Steve’s essay will surprise—he calls for the abolition of DRM.

“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.”

Is this all just a ploy to polish Apple’s latterly tarnished public image? No and yes. Even though it is obviously how Apple feels, Steve’s writing and posting of this essay is definitely a response to negative press and blogging that has painted Apple as the bad guy of DRM.

Steve makes several points:

- “Apple has concluded that if it licenses FairPlay to others, it can no longer guarantee to protect the music it licenses from the big four music companies.”
- “DRMs haven’t worked, and may never work, to halt music piracy.”
- “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.”
- “Much of the concern over DRM systems has arisen in European countries.”
- “For Europeans, two and a half of the big four music companies are located right in their backyard.”

Regarding music sold on unprotected CDs, the record companies—Sony BMG in particular—have experimented with copy protection of CD-based music and so are still keen to plug that hole. If they do, then Steve’s call to abolish DRM will lose its clout.

In arguing against DRMs, interestingly he argues that Apple can’t license FairPlay to others, as FairPlay’s secrets would be compromised, meaning the need for it to be modified. FairPlay can already be easily removed from a song by anyone with a CD burner, and yet nothing has been done to prevent that.

Given his position as CEO of Apple, it is no surprise he doesn’t mention how easy it is to remove DRM using a CD burner. I’ve done it myself so I could load and play music I legally own on my Palm—just as I can do with any music I bought on CD.  Makes you wonder, though, how much music that floats around peer-to-peer music sharing systems is actually bought off iTMS. Probably more than we realize.

Today there are three main levels of piracy:
1) People making unauthorized copies of music for their own listening;
2) People sharing copyrighted music through means such as peer-to-peer and burning CDs;
3) People or businesses illegally reproducing and selling copyrighted music.

It is the third that affects the music industry the most, despite claims that it’s the second, which is just because those people are an easy target. In fact, as it’s a form of viral marketing, many musicians nowadays support the idea of people giving copies of their music to friends, with some even actively encouraging it.

But at all three levels DRM can be very easily circumvented. I hardly doubt Apple’s FairPlay—or any other DRM system—has any noticeable impact on any of these forms of piracy of music obtained from online music stores. As Steve said, DRMs haven’t stopped piracy.

So what else is in it for Apple if DRMs were abolished? Consider Steve’s apparent contradiction where on the one hand he states his fear of losing music on the iTMS:

“. . .a key provision of our agreements with the music companies is that if our DRM system is compromised and their music becomes playable on unauthorized devices, we have only a small number of weeks to fix the problem or they can withdraw their entire music catalog from our iTunes store.”

But he then goes on to argue how iTMS purchased music is insignificant in the scheme of things:

“Today’s most popular iPod holds 1000 songs, and research tells us that the average iPod is nearly full.  This means that only 22 out of 1000 songs, or under 3% of the music on the average iPod, is purchased from the iTunes store and protected with a DRM. . . since 97% of the music on the average iPod was not purchased from the iTunes store, iPod users are clearly not locked into the iTunes store to acquire their music.”

Despite the latter assertion, the former carries the truth that iPod sales, despite an average of 22 songs per iPod, would be greatly impacted by the loss of music sales on the iTMS.

Apple gains great leverage off the iTMS and has never made a secret of the fact that it is a vehicle to sell iPods. Steve and Apple clearly believe that discontinuing DRMs would not reduce iPod sales, and you might suspect they even think it could be good for iPod sales. It would also clearly be good for music sales; however, Apple has always stated that it makes nix off music sold on iTMS.

Steve’s article also demonstrates the power Apple now wields. He is obviously confident that, although it might upset a few record company execs, at the end of the day he has got them singing his iTunes—except on the DRM issue.

This is a significant move by Apple and one aimed squarely at the European countries who have been laying the blame for DRM on Apple. Fresh from winning the battle with another European giant of the music industry, Apple Corp, hopefully Apple will also win this battle and we will be able to buy all our music DRM free.


  • This dead horse has been flogged enough. Steve-O is asking the big four to take a big step that they don’t realize that they’ve already taken. There are ways around DRM and copy protected CDs. For them to keep pursuing it at this point is moot - yet they don’t (want to) realize that either.

    The industry jumping at licensing FairPlay tells me that they are desperate, out of ideas and that nothing else they have attempted is working.

    Even if copy protection succeeds one way or another, it will only be temporary. Wake up and hear the DRM-free music.

    MacNuggets had this to say on Feb 07, 2007 Posts: 17
  • Very significant, indeed. Well written commentary, Chris.

    I do agree that this letter is from Steve’s own thoughts. Who else could be making such a proposal to abolish all the evils of DRM than The Steve himself?

    I see that Apple mad-hatters haven’t responded to this and much of the commentaries around the web since it too “abolished” their very stance that Apple is the culprit of DRM and that foreboding “lock-out” phenomena, which I call the “causal effect of DRM”, and not due to Fairplay in itself.  To counter that notion, PlaysForSure could have had the same “lock-out” effect had it become very successful as Fairplay.

    As for its political positionings against the European contries, Steve is using his big guns at the “Big Three and a Half” to make this decision QUICKLY and not be cowardly coying with ineffective DRMs.

    That 97 percentile of all music without DRMs might just be the straw of truth that breaks the DRM horse’s back.

    Robomac had this to say on Feb 07, 2007 Posts: 846
  • I think the most important thing about this is that Apple is absolutely prepared to compete solely on the basis of the quality of its players, which is the prime upshot of “a truly interoperable music marketplace”.

    I’ll admit, I’m particularly excited by this because it’s the central thing upon which my arguments with certain people on this matter have rested.

    Benji had this to say on Feb 07, 2007 Posts: 927
  • I just hope it’s not empty words.

    (I don’t doubt that currently apple’s hands are tied by the labels. But I also hope that Jobs’s kickboxing is as enthusiastic as he makes out.)

    Benji had this to say on Feb 07, 2007 Posts: 927
  • I just hope it’s not empty words. -Ben

    I shall enthusiastically throw more than my usual grain of salt over the shoulder.

    I also understand the duality of this letter as a political statement and a debunker of the Fairplay DRM myth worn by oh so many on this forum.

    If it’s coming straight from the man responsible for the iPod, iTunes, and the interwebbing of the two: Fairplay DRM, then I am happy for all music fans.

    This has to be the greatest news for all reluctant DRM users like myself. And add the possibilities of a future without DRM on all content: music, videos, and movies.

    Bring ‘em on and I’ll lay out my wallet…

    Robomac had this to say on Feb 07, 2007 Posts: 846
  • This has to be the greatest news for all reluctant DRM users like myself.

    Yes. As Daniel Eran has noticed, too, it highlights just how deeply different Microsoft and Apple truly are.

    Benji had this to say on Feb 07, 2007 Posts: 927
  • By the way Chris, great points at the end there about the paradox of iTunes’s worth and lack of worth.

    And another thing - Dave Winer’s post on this today, , is really interesting and thought provoking in pointing out how thoughtful has been the blogosphere’s reaction to this news, and on how it relates to the whole issue of new media.

    Benji had this to say on Feb 07, 2007 Posts: 927
  • My take?  It’s easy to make a promise you know you’ll never have to keep. 

    Apple’s vigorous defense of its DRM scheme and its utter refusal to license it belies Jobs’s opposition to DRM.  His argument that practically no one even owns music from the iTunes store belies his constant touting of iTunes’s huge success and paradigm shift within the industry.

    It’s simply the latest reality distortion from the master of propaganda.  Jobs will literally say ANYTHING to sell his latest product, and right now his latest product is getting the EU off his back.  And as usual, his brainwashed minions are buying it hook, line, and sinker.

    A universal DRM scheme would roughly resemble CSS on DVDs.  It was cracked a long time ago, although most users don’t care.  They can play any DVD in any DVD player.  And the industry is still raking in billions.  Everyone wins.

    Apple could have that and own the technology.  But they’d rather keep it to themselves.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Feb 07, 2007 Posts: 2220
  • it highlights just how deeply different Microsoft and Apple truly are.

    Uh yeah.  The ONLY difference (in terms of music DRM) is that MS agreed to pay Universal a piece of the Zune sales.  And that’s it.  Everything else, from the song prices to the locked-in DRM is pretty much exactly the same.

    But according to the Apple minions, this somehow adds up to MS cowtowing to the industry but Apple changing the face of music.

    Btw, I really do hope Jobs is sincere and that it makes a difference.  But it won’t.  Because the idea that Jobs gets to tell the labels what to do is an Apple fanatic delusion.  Add to that the fact that independent artists cannot opt-out of iTunes DRM even if they have no label demanding it refutes any such claim by Jobs that DRM is only there because of the labels.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Feb 07, 2007 Posts: 2220
  • Hee hee

    Benji had this to say on Feb 07, 2007 Posts: 927
  • One thing Jobs left out in his broad essay was the sneaky way the music was sold on the iTunes store as encrypted files. I was burned by this. After initially be frustrated that there were no online stores to buy the tunes I wanted, when iTunes really started to broaden its selection, I made a principled decision to “go legit”, deleting all the music files I had gotten illegally, and purchasing them from iTunes, purely to support the artists and reward the industry for waking up. Months later I discovered that I had bought load of music files that had controls stapled onto them of what I could do with them, that would only play on Mac computers. The wedding of content to hardware should never have happened and Apple should have been more forthright about what it was “selling.” Buying a piece of media with restrictions on it is closer to renting something than buying it. Still, this is an encouraging essay. If he ever gets his wish, I hope they give everybody who bought DRM files the keys to unlock them.

    djohnson had this to say on Feb 07, 2007 Posts: 1
  • The ONLY difference (in terms of music DRM) is that MS agreed to pay Universal a piece of the Zune sales.

    Yah, and what a mistake and that same guy who made that deal with Universal is fired [Bryan Lee] presumably for the fumbled Zune launch and who knows what else.

    ...this somehow adds up to MS cowtowing to the industry

    Read again.

    Apple’s vigorous defense of its DRM scheme and its utter refusal to license…

    Vigorous defense? Technically, as in patching holes, or politically speaking? But, anyway, Apple’s utter refusal and the reasoning behind the expeditious technical defenses are well explained by Steve in his memo. Perhaps, you need to re-read again.

    As for “politically” inspired defenses, this is the first I have seen a public statement from any level of the company explaining why Apple chose this or that regarding its DRM scheme. Everything else you’ve heard were either from a “reliable source” leaked in the blogosphere or mainstream media.

    Robomac had this to say on Feb 07, 2007 Posts: 846
  • The publication of an open letter is a pretty straightforward step in the PR process for Apple. The EU’s on the verge of declaring Fairlplay illegal, based in large part on pressure from consumer groups.

    The first step is a simple one: place the blame on someone else. Point out that the music companies forced them to use DRM. Deflect the public’s attention with a plea to those same companies. Try to get the conversation moving in a different direction. “It’s not Fairplay that’s the problem, it’s that we’re forced to use any DRM at all..”

    Best of all, in the event that the music companies buy into the argument, the problem disappears. And if they don’t, Apple can paint them as the greedy bad guy.

    “They went thatta way!”

    CapnVan had this to say on Feb 07, 2007 Posts: 68
  • Yeah, I don’t think SJ seriously expects the EU - even if they put pressure on the record companies - to get DRM abolished.

    In this age of Corporatism, I don’t think any country has enough muscle - or desire - to force the change. (Not even the USA.)

    The interesting thing is the EU may back down when their 2&1/2 locally owned music companies politely explain to them the necessity of DRM on downloadable music.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Feb 07, 2007 Posts: 1209
  • Actually I respectfully disagree, Chris. If anything I can see a smaller European country wanting go up against Apple.

    Hadley Stern had this to say on Feb 07, 2007 Posts: 114
  • Page 1 of 4 pages  1 2 3 >  Last »
You need log in, or register, in order to comment