Pay no attention to that man in the mock turtleneck behind the curtain. Too much fanfare, Apple's Steve Jobs and British music giant EMI Group announced that for an extra $.30 they will sell songs on iTunes without copy protection. But this is all smoke and mirrors—Jobs and EMI are simply selling you the rights they took from you in the first place.
Now you can buy the Rolling Stones' Satisfaction and play it on your iPod or your…wait a minute. What else is there?
Instead of protecting copyrighted music, Digital Rights Management (DRM) has been the device by which Apple has put the strangle hold on the digital download and music player industry. Ask the fools who bought Microsoft's Zune. Until yesterday, DRM dictated that when you downloaded a song on iTunes it could only be played on an iPod. And iTunes has more than 70 percent of the market for music downloads, according to market research firm NPD. So who's really benefiting from DRM? Apple.
This isn't really news to the folks following the work of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. To the dismay of consumer advocates and music fans, the music industry has pushed DRM as the only way of reducing piracy of copyrighted music. But DRM codes have been cracked left and right, providing little satisfaction to artists and record labels trying to make an honest buck.
But it causes one to take the earphones off and wonder: why the change of heart over at Apple?
Jobs' recent rants against DRM are a ploy to distract us from the increasing number of legal challenges to its business practices, especially in Europe. And no sooner had Jobs made his announcement yesterday than European commission officials confirmed that Apple and the record companies that sell songs on iTunes are facing an antitrust inquiry over the pricing of songs on the iTunes service.
"The very fact that you are unable to buy the same tune for the same price or you are unable in some cases to buy the same tune at all is a problem for us," a commission spokesman told Bloomberg.
A song costs 99 euro cents ($1.32) to download from iTunes in a nation that uses the euro, according to the commission. By contrast, in the United Kingdom it costs the equivalent of 1.17 euros and in Denmark 8 kroner, or 1.07 euros, Bloomberg reports.
The commissions' statement of objections does not allege that Apple is in a dominant market position and is not about Apple's use of its proprietary DRM to control usage rights for downloads. Yet DRM provides the curtain behind which Apple is all too happy hide.
"Apple has always wanted to operate a single, pan-European iTunes store accessible by anyone from any member state, but we were advised by the music labels and publishers that there were certain legal limits to the rights they could grant us," Apple said in an e-mailed statement.
So, DRM may soon be a thing of the past—but not until Apple used it to put other music downloading and listening platforms under their thumb.