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march 23, 2006:
vive la france: apple, ipods, state-sponsored piracy and... ...the truth.

Finally, someone is speaking up about the madness that is digital music today: The only thing that really works for the user (Apple’s iTunes/iPod, at least, technically speaking) has given rise to yet another hardware-based, proprietary, walledgarden, non-music-centric, de-facto monopoly, while the other thing that we all know really works (MP3s) has been blacklisted for what I sometimes call “holy-cow violations” (i.e., giving the users what they want). Now, the new bill that’s in the oven in the land of “(h)ealthy snobbism,” a.k.a. France, still needs to be approved by the French senate (in May or June I think), but its passage seems quite likely. As I understand it, this bill would basically stipulate that all music purchased from any legal music service must play on all devices, regardless of which DRM and/or other proprietary software is used. I quote today’s International Herald Tribune (IHT): “The French bill does not say, ‘Don’t respect copyrights’ or ‘Don’t pay for creative works.’ While technically and legally it may be impossibly vague, the legislation essentially calls for any company’s copy-protection technology to be made available widely, with the goal of allowing digital works to be universally playable, without respect to the hardware involved...”

Now, this does not apply only to Apple, of course, but also Sony’s ghastly Sony Connect service and Microsoft’s Janus DRM, but so far Apple’s Fairplay is the only DRM that is guarded more closely by “big Steve” than the jewels of Queen Elizabeth, and has not been licensed to anyone. Another quote from the IHT (which always has some of the best coverage, by the way): “‘If this happens, legal music sales will plummet just when legitimate alternatives to piracy are winning over customers,’ the Apple statement said.” Wow! Now this is self-serving with a very large S. I mean, come on guys, I love my iPod, I love my Mac G4, and I may eventually even learn to love iTunes (and that antiquated one-euro-per-song model), but to say that you guys represent, or even are the entire universe of legal music, is far-fetched at least. But...in the same IHT feature, Apple’s PR machine goes even further: “iPod sales will likely increase as users freely load their iPods with ‘interoperable’ music which cannot be adequately protected.” So, if you are forced to open up your walled garden, change your lock-up-the-ecosystem attitude, and make your fig-leaf albeit label-mandated DRM available, then the world will lapse into a funk of illegal downloading?

Nobody to guard against the evil server farms in Vanatu? All that great music will go out there without your protection schemes that you set up to please the major record labels? Ouch, I shudder even thinking about it. Yes, Steve, let’s just give the whole thing to you instead: first music, then videos, then films, and then...well, how about search? Tivo? Google? The Universe? UniApple? Let’s do some math: 50 million or so iPods and approximately one billion music tracks sold to date makes 20 songs sold per iPod, during the entire lifespan of iTunes, i.e., since April 28, 2003 (thanks, Wikipedia). So approximately 20 songs in three years, i.e., 6.66 songs purchased per iPod user per year. Now, pardon the question, where are all the other songs on those 3,000-plus-track-carrying iPods coming from? No, of course not...from ripped CDs, from file-sharing sites, from IM transfers, from USB thumb drives, from stream-rippers, etc., etc. Face it: Your iPod is not popular because it sells music – it is popular because it’s fashion, and it’s cool, and it works well. Congrats on your marketing, Apple, but please let us have our music the way we want (and yes, that goes for the record labels, too). For $1 a song (and I mean every song), nobody is going to win over the consumers – and you know it. Simply because such a system that asks me to pay $1 per song every time I get another one creates no liquidity, defies exploration, stops dis- covery, and – this is the worst – mirrors the outmoded, fixedmedia pricing logic of $1/track that we should have gotten rid of years ago.

Music needs flexible pricing now, and exposure and discovery are crucial! Yes, Apple iTunes jump-started the digital music business, and it created a new ecosystem, and the rising tide floats all boats, and those Mac PowerBooks are so cool – but: it’s time to move on, guys. Time to get out of the way and let other people in on the party. The IHT has it right (as usual): “The iPod-iTunes link is like BMWs running only on BMW-branded gasoline, or like Sony CD players taking only Sony CDs – or even like Microsoft’s Media Player being the only jukebox software to work smoothly with the company’s Windows operating system.” Thanks to the IHT for nailing this down like this. As a side note, there is another marvel in here: “Much of Western Europe relies on a single currency, the euro. All of Europe has one cell phone standard. Both were government initiatives.” This relates nicely to the debate on Flat Fee Music and Compulsory Licensing: If and when this will happen, the governments must be involved, without a doubt – the Apple Fairplay DRM story aptly illustrates this. Bottom line: No, Steve (or Bill), you can’t own this. Sorry.