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A View from Brad King

Apple Pushes to End DRM

Steve Jobs calls on the music industry to drop its use of digital rights management software.

  • February 7, 2007

Apple CEO Steve Jobs hates digital rights management (DRM)–and he wants you to know that the music industry is responsible for those restrictions on entertainment that keep people from ripping, mixing, and burning their own media.

At least, that’s the idea he posted on Apple’s website yesterday.

Let me first start by saying that Jobs’s apparent change of heart about DRM is long overdue. I’ve been a (flip and sarcastic) critic of his draconian view of digital rights management, which has raised the hackles of the Apple community. But Jobs’s voice is a welcome addition to the discussion about looking for ways to promote an environment that includes unrestricted media files.

However, let’s not be misled by the press response to his post. Jobs isn’t leading this discussion. There have been countless voices, from RealNetworks’ Rob Glaser to MP3.com’s Michael Robertson and all of the digital-entertainment companies that went out of business in 2000 and 2001 because music companies refused to deal with them. Moreover, I don’t believe Jobs is doing this out of some altruistic belief that unrestricted is better.

The most obvious reason for Jobs’s post: Apple is receiving some heat in Europe because of the iPod and iTunes, the hardware-software connection that locks out competitors from developing add-ons. The company has trotted out the age-old argument that if it allows other people to develop on its network, it can’t guarantee that the network will be secure.

With his “Thoughts on Music” post, Jobs is deftly trying to switch the attention from his monopoly to the music industry’s oligopoly.

Now, I don’t believe Jobs should be lambasted for making a corporate decision–or even for launching a corporate public-relations ploy–simply because it makes good business sense and not because it’s the right thing. Jobs’s primary responsibility as Apple’s CEO is to the bottom line, while operating within the bounds of the law.

He should make decisions that make the most sense financially.

Apple is given too much credit for being the scrappy little computer company that could; it’s just a company. It has positives (great interface design, plug-and-play products) and negatives (a terrible record on the environment, closed networks).

When it comes to DRM, though, Jobs has the rare opportunity to inject actual change in the digital-media landscape while also promoting the financial well-being of his company, even if that means opening up the Apple architecture to allow competitors to play on the same landscape.

Mark Cuban, the outspoken founder of Broadcast.com, said that if he couldn’t compete with free, then he didn’t have a business. And for Jobs, it’s unlikely that additional competition in the unrestricted digital-media market would be bad for Apple. It would likely have the opposite effect. With more media available, and with Apple’s user-friendly plug-and-play applications, the company would likely see great growth in its products.

The decision to move in this direction would make sense, particularly on the heels of the decision to change the company’s name from Apple Computer to Apple Inc., a symbolic gesture that signals its decision to move away from personal computing and into the consumer-electronics and digital-entertainment space.

If Jobs is serious about the exploration of a digital-media environment that, at the very least, has viable unrestricted alternatives alongside restricted alternatives, we may very well be on the verge of a changing landscape online.

Jobs has the ear of the entertainment industry in a way that Microsoft, RealNetworks, and scads of other companies never have. If he builds it, those companies will follow.

If he builds it.

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