DRM and the iTunes Store
November 1, 2008
Inspired by a great talk by Larry Lessig about how Copyright Law strangles creativity, here’s a little rant about DRM and the iTunes store that turns into a Happy End. (Feel free to skip the rant if you just want to hear the good news).
Back in the 90s, when I was a teenager, my allowance and the money I made from my paper route went pretty much into either computer or record stores. In the latter I would buy CDs. CDs were great. You could copy them onto a tape, thereby creating one of those legendary mixed tapes that allowed you to endure long car journeys or a day at the beach. Later, you could read audio CDs onto your computer and make your own remixes of your favourite songs or do other silly stuff. Maybe even just listen to the music when lugging around one of those earlier portables. I actually had one of those and the invention of MP3 meant I could bring my favourite CDs on vacation with me by packing just one CD! Life was good.
You could argue that life’s even better today. Now I can buy music off the internet, it’s just a click away. Yes, in a way I enjoyed hanging out in record stores with my mates. But things have changed and we now have fanstatic offerings like last.fm. Feed it with enough information about your musical taste (by “scrobbling” songs while you listen to them) and it’ll happily tell you about artists similar to the ones you already like. It’s like the 2.0 version of your mate that used to take you to record stores. And he’s already made me spend a pretty penny on music. No regrets, though.
Not everything about all this is as great as it sounds. If you’re just a bit IT-literate, then you know what the Digital Millenium Copyrights Act (DMCA) and other similar admendments to copyright law in EU countries have done to the way music has to be consumed these days. It has effectively criminalized circumventing mechanisms that protect music from being copied. With most music available from the iTunes store being protected with a Digital Rights Management (DRM) mechanism, this means no more mixed tapes, no more funky and embarrassing remixes. Yes, I know, you can still make mixed tapes because they’re analogue. What I’m talking about is the equivalent of the mixed tape for the 21st century: a mixed MP3 CD that my car stereo can play or a dirt-cheap MP3 player that I can take jogging with me without risking getting my iPhone/iPod wet and broken. None of those devices can play encrypted AAC files such as the ones you get from the iTunes store and I don’t see why they should have to. The tape deck in my dad’s car stereo didn’t have to either, right?
To give Apple credit, they do allow the mixed tape use case, albeit in a 20th century fashion: you can write DRM’ed tracks to an audio CD a limited number of times. So apparently it’s alright to build DRM circumventing mechanisms into the software if it’s inconvenient enough for the user. Indeed, the EU has encouraged such “voluntary measures” on behalf of the industry in Directive 2001/29/EC (EU equivalent of the DMCA), paragraph (52). So we’re at the hands of what the industry allows to do with the stuff we’ve bought.
Or are we? In Germany at least, circumventing DRM is legal if it’s for personal use (cf. §108b(1) UrhG). Reading Section 1201 which the DMCA added to U.S. Copyright Law, it seems the situation in the U.S. isn’t as favourable, but then again, I’m not a layer. The best news really is, however, that despite the industry’s best efforts, we might not have to live with DRM for much longer. For a while now, there’s music on iTunes that isn’t DRM-protected. MySpace, Amazon and various other people are selling unprotected MP3s as well. So why don’t you buy there, you might ask. Well, for one thing, I actually couldn’t find out how to buy stuff from MySpace. And Amazon.com will only sell MP3 downloads to people located in the U.S. But nevertheless, there’s no denying that DRM hasn’t had the success that the lobbyists had hoped for. I just hope that Apple will see the light and remove it from the iTunes Store altogether.
In the mean time, if you’re in a country that allows the circumvention of DRM mechanisms for private use, you might enjoy Requiem (version 1.8.1 for iTunes 8). It strips the DRM encryption from AAC files, allowing you to convert them to MP3 and thereby use the music you’ve bought in mixed tape scenarious. Unfortunately, due to legal difficulties in the U.S., Requiem currently can’t be obtained from the author’s website. However, both binaries and source code are available from peer-to-peer networks.