Last week, Apple announced they're ridding their 10-million-song library of playback restrictions, or DRM (Digital Restriction Management)— annoying controls that lock music to specific devices and systems.  And they’ve pledged to complete the liberation by April 2009. 


This news makes 2009 the year music freed its ass: When you buy a song on any of the top four digital music outlets now (Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, or Walmart), you can choose to play that song on whatever device you want, as often as want.


The industry wanted us to believe that when we paid for and downloaded an MP3, we had only licensed it—with a limited set of rights—instead of bought it. This jarred against the sensibility of many music fans. When we bought an LP or a CD, we had a palpable object with which we could have our way. When we bought a digital music file, we tacitly agreed that it wasn't ours, and the music industry tried to make the list of acceptable uses smaller and smaller.


Now they’ve changed their tune: Nearly all digitally downloadable music will be sold in the U.S. starting in April 2009 with no protection enabled, and the industry has dropped its strategy of abusive lawsuits directed largely at college students.


Maybe the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA, pronounced "the R-I-double-A") didn't quite believe we were all thieves, but suing dead people, grandparents who couldn't operate technology, and people who didn't own computers for allegedly sharing music illegally over peer-to-peer networks didn't help. It created a vast community of people angry at the restrictions placed on their ability to listen to music they had legitimately purchased.


U.S. law and court rulings that have enshrined a fairly broad acceptance that individuals can make copies of video and music that they have purchased for personal use, often marked as starting with Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios. That suit, known as the Betamax case, determined that individuals could time-shift programs to watch later using a VCR.


That was before digital copies allowed perfect reproduction, however. The RIAA and its movie counterpart the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) freaked out about the notion of perfect copies circulating--and rightly so--and were able to have passed the odious Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which criminalized some forms of music and video copyright for any purpose. Intent didn't matter: We are all criminals in the eyes of the DMCA.


The DMCA allowed the digital rights management (DRM) encryption software that the computer and consumer electronics industries were developing to appease the movie and music groups to be unbreakable. Even though flaws have been found that allow people to take the scrambled bits of DVDs, digital movie downloads, and protected MP3s and turn them into freely playable content, the DMCA ruled that breaking such encryption was illegal. No exceptions.


DRM uses encryption to lock the playback of media to specific devices or software. In the Apple ecosystem, only iTunes (under Mac OS X or Windows), an iPod, or an iPhone could play back music purchased from Apple's iTunes Store.


There's a legitimate reason to want DRM, for any artist or label, large or small: to keep people from buying one copy of a song or album and distributing it to a million people who don't pay for it. That's not sustainable for artists or associated businesses, unless they're willing to make all their money from touring and merchandise.


But because DRM de facto assumes that there is no legitimate purpose in copying media, and the DMCA strong arm enforces that, we as an audience were left out of the equation.


The anger and irritation broke through,  coupled with an interesting business situation. When Amazon.com launched its first downloadable music store, they opted to sell only DRM-free music. Later, Microsoft relaunched Zune music marketplace and Walmart's online music store switched entirely to DRM-free music as well.


The reason was partly de facto: people had figured out how to get around DRM requirements, and all the lawsuits and software updates and inconveniences were having no effect on the volume of illegally shared music. The solution was to make music easier to obtain legally, and thus increase sales.


The other part of this equation: Apple. Apple dominates digital music sales and has the largest share of music player sales as well. Music labels wanted to break Apple's hegemony, which carries with it a lock on what prices labels can charge, and removing DRM--thus making songs that could be played on iPods even if not purchased via Apple--was apparently the best solution. Only a fraction of Apple's songs could be purchased DRM free, while the same songs were available at other marketplaces with no protection.


Apple has long said it thought DRM was useless for the simple expedient that any audio CD can be ripped at very high quality because CDs were developed in the 1980s, a decade before a network existed that could transfer even a fraction of the content of a CD in a reasonable period of time.


The RIAA also recently and relatively quietly stopped suing individuals for sharing songs. While the trade group filed thousands of lawsuits and may have collected millions of dollars, they offended their core audience of music buyers. The new strategy will target Internet service providers, asking them to cut off subscribers that are engaged in copyright violation. That may turn out more fair.


In the end, though, we get what we wanted: the right to play music we purchased freely among all the equipment we own as an individual or a family without re-purchasing music (something the film and music industries love us to do) or dealing with the tedium of figuring out which devices could play what music when.


The film industry is still far behind on copy protection, although they've been nowhere near as aggressive about going after individuals who aren't engaged in widescale theft as opposed to personal use. But it's clear that with the music industry down for the count, and honoring their listeners' demands that movie world can't fight back forever.


I'm a writer who makes money from his words (although, I still haven’t seen a contract from Josh yet).  I defend copyright and the inalienable right for a creator to control what happens to his or her creation within the scope of the law (and allowing for parody and satire and fair-use sampling and educational use).



But DRM and the DMCA have been straitjackets for commerce, not protection. Unshackling has begun.


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