I confess, I've never bought anything from iTunes. I don't own an iPod, an MP3 player, or even have a CD player in my car. I mostly listen to music on my computer, occasionally disrupting the neighbors by blasting Muse at 3:00 a.m.
I had never before considered purchasing anything from iTunes for one reason: DRM (or digital rights management), an acronym that has taken on Orwellian significance in online communities. It elicits everything from utter hatred to disinterested acceptance. Many web commentators, like Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing, have made it part of their life's mission to rid it from all digital media, including games, DVDs and downloadable videos. While I'm not quite as vicious as all that, I wouldn't ever buy something that was DRM'd.
For those not in the know, DRM is a technological lock on a digital file that prevents it from being used in a way that the content provider (like a record label) wants it to be used. In the case of Apple's DRM - FairPlay - it restricts you from playing the music in anything but iTunes or on iPods, and from transferring it to more than five computers. To change the computers, one has to go through the task of de-authorizing the music and reauthorizing it on another system.
There is a workaround whereby you could burn the track onto CD and then rip it back in an unprotected format, like MP3, but this degrades the sound quality and is a hassle, even if you had a CD-RW to burn with over and over again.
Then, on April 2, industry-changing words were uttered by a music executive from one of the most lawsuit-happy companies under the RIAA umbrella: "We have to trust consumers."
EMI became the first of the "Big Four" music labels (made up of Warner, EMI, Universal and Sony) to drop DRM from their catalog entirely. And, not only that, but Apple would be selling these DRM-free tracks at a higher bit rate, making it the best-sounding offering in the online music arena (save for some rare "lossless" sellers like Magnatune).
My first reaction to this news was utter and complete shock. Having been researching this issue since I first heard the term "DRM" uttered back in 2003, as well as the labels' insistence that it was necessary to protect the future of content from piracy, it came as a surprise that a major label would suddenly decide to just drop that protection entirely.
I suppose this was a long time coming, though. After all, DRM is completely ineffective. For example, music that appears on iTunes, even exclusively encoded with DRM since its inception, ends up on the P2P networks within 180 seconds. Despite insistence that it's necessary and only fair from the RIAA, MPAA, BSA and advocate organizations like the PFF (Progress and Freedom Foundation), it didn't change the fact of its uselessness.
After hearing about EMI's decision, the PFF's James DeLong, a longtime advocate of using DRM to weed out "free riders" from not paying, wrote, "If the new format quickly turns up on the P2P sites, and if sales start off high and then fade away as the songs spread virally from iPod to iPod, then we will have learned something." This, of course, is silly. DRM has never prevented files from ending up on P2P networks. Even iTunes-exclusive content that has been DRM'd from the get-go ends up on the networks. The fact there's another format to share won't really change that, and it can only increase sales for the struggling EMI. For instance, I wouldn't feel any qualms about purchasing from them.