Steve Jobs on DRM: "You go first"

I’ve read a lot in the press about how “Apple’s Jobs calls on music industry to drop DRM“:


“Steve Jobs on Tuesday called on the four major record companies to start selling songs online without copy protection software to thwart piracy known as digital rights management (DRM).”

Okay, so for a man whose main recent claim to fame is that he’s made the population switch from wearing black earbuds to white, to be calling for an end to DRM strikes me as a little odd – after all, iTunes doesn’t sell any songs without DRM [I'll revisit this point in a moment].


So, I go and read his actual words (warning for those of you on a slow link – for a site that displays only text, it loads a lot of graphics – even the three title words are a graphic) – it takes me a long time to reach something that can actually be interpreted as “DRM is bad” – Steve asks us to “Imagine a world where every online store sells DRM-free music”, and says “This is clearly the best alternative for consumers, and Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat.”


He goes on to note that, as I’ve mentioned a number of times (but I don’t think he got the idea from me necessarily), “DRMs haven’t worked, and may never work, to halt music piracy”. I’ll be charitable, and assume that his use of “may” there is an expression of what DRM is able to do, and not the often-used synonym for “might” (go re-read the sentence, substituting either “can” or “might”, to see the difference it makes to the meaning).


 Jobs’ final paragraph, quoted below, is going to be the message we take from this posting:


“Much of the concern over DRM systems has arisen in European countries.  Perhaps those unhappy with the current situation should redirect their energies towards persuading the music companies to sell their music DRM-free.  For Europeans, two and a half of the big four music companies are located right in their backyard.  The largest, Universal, is 100% owned by Vivendi, a French company.  EMI is a British company, and Sony BMG is 50% owned by Bertelsmann, a German company.  Convincing them to license their music to Apple and others DRM-free will create a truly interoperable music marketplace.  Apple will embrace this wholeheartedly.”

So the messages from Steve Jobs are:


  • Four companies “made him do it”, but his store adds DRM to all music, whether from those four companies or not.
  • Apple plans to lead in the removal of DRM by following on after everyone else removes DRM. If Microsoft is criticised for “embrace and extend”, I think Apple should be criticised here for “you extend, then we’ll embrace” (presumably as quickly as they “embraced” the new version of Windows that landed as a surprise on them last week, despite being available to all other Windows software vendors since early last year?)
  • Europe owns the world’s ability to hear music. Only Europeans can usher in an age of audio freedom.
  • Apple doesn’t have the power, or the spine, to tell music producers “okay, you’ve had a taster of the online distribution format, now we’re going to phase out DRM over the next three years, and you can either deal with a lack of DRM, or yank your music off the store, and deal with the fact that your artists aren’t being listened to on iPods any more.”

This isn’t a call to arms, it’s a position paper – it’s a statement that Apple is subservient to the content producers, rather than the content consumers. The “customers” in iTunes are the music producers, the “products” are the consumers.


It’s a reminder that Apple has turned from a company that leads the world by making bold changes, into a company that wants to follow where others lead – if that’s alright with you.

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