Has Steve Jobs seen the light? Apple’s chief executive says that he would prefer to abandon the system of copy protection that prevents those who download songs from his iTunes downloading service from playing their purchases on anything but an iPod.
Mr Jobs faces pressure from governments in Europe over his domination of the legal music download market. An ombudsman in Norway last month agreed with a consumer complaint about Apple’s use of copy protection and the company is also facing pressure in France and Germany.
Mr Jobs responded this week with an open letter to the music industry calling for it to drop digital rights management (DRM) and instead allow songs to be downloaded by consumers in open formats such as MP3. This would allow them to transfer their music collections easily to other music players.
On the face of it, this would be bad news for Apple since the close tying of iPods with the iTunes service, which is reinforced by Apple’s Fairplay copy protection, is one reason why the company has such a strong market position. But Mr Jobs insists that his hand is forced by music companies and he is willing to relax his grasp.
Mr Jobs claims that abandonment of DRM by music companies is the only practical alternative to Apple maintaining its tight control of Fairplay. It has refused to license Fairplay out to other companies and Mr Jobs says that, if it did so, the copy protection would be compromised by leaks, which would undermine the system.
Mr Jobs is a master at arguing that what is in his self-interest is the best thing for everyone. Apple is one of the world’s most sophisticated software companies and it hardly seems credible that it could not license its own DRM sofware to others safely if it tried hard enough. Other companies, such as Microsoft, have done so.
All the same, Apple remains within its rights not to license out Fairplay. There is open competition in the music downloading market and no consumer is forced to buy an Ipod and use it with Itues. There are many other music players available, as well as many other download outets, and nobody is forced to buy an iPod.
But the fact that Mr Jobs is publicly arguing in favour of restrictions – including his own – being loosened indicates that he is feeling pressure from Europe on the issue. He appears to be positioning his company for the day that he can no longer sustain Apple’s “walled garden” approach in the face of public pressure.
If so, it makes sense for music companies also to consider how they could thrive in a world without DRM, or one in which copy protection was considerably loosened. That need not be as grim a prospect as some fear - independent labels already sell songs without DRM and EMI has experimented with that approach. When the world turns, companies must turn too.