Death to DRM

1/29/2009 5:26:18 PM

Digital rights management--the dirtiest term to ever be used in the same sentence as "digital download"--is finally showing signs of extinction, at least in Apple's iTunes store. Though sites like eMusic and Amazon have long sold music and other digital media free of DRM, Apple, apparently locked in a contractual headlock with the major record labels, finally got the go ahead to change its pricing model as well as remove pesky DRM from the store's stock.

When this was announced about two weeks ago, the world did some restrained rejoicing--after all, if the studies are any indication, most people were skipping iTunes altogether to obtain their media by less than legal means. But then iTunes and the giant music companies stepped in it when they told consumers who had bought those DRM-riddled tracks that to get DRM-free versions of those purchased songs, they will have to upgrade every single track...at the same time...for a massive fee. This all-or-nothing approach, something that people in my neighborhood refer to as "getting gully", was greeted with derision, laughter, and a healthy dose of bitterness from the general population. Apple and the Big Four had a rethink, and today came word that you can upgrade the DRM-encoded tracks of your choice, when you want for 30 cents a pop.  While that is a better deal, it still feels like extortion to me; if these companies had recognized the viability of digital media from jump, they would not have to resort to "by any means necessary" tactics to turn a profit.

The headaches that DRM has caused is not confined to music-loving consumers. For media server and digital distribution network manufacturers, the technology was a migraine-inducing tangle that often forced them to write disclaimers in their manuals (i.e., our unit plays every digital file type imaginable, except your songs purchased via iTunes), though it should be noted that Autonomic Controls received many accolades last November for managing to legally create a media server that played with DRM-laced files just fine.

While it is a relief to see DRM finally get the boot from the iTunes Store, there is no doubt in my mind that the lessons created by this bit of controlling technology will go unlearned (witness AT&T, Comcast, and Cox Communications attempt to create a hierarchy for the use of bandwidth! Come on now, stop it already). Even in the face of extraordinary shifts in innovation and public opinion, so many companies have failed to embrace the swiftly changing technology landscape that I can only see more tussles of this kind continuing for some time. 

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