This past summer, an unfortunate event brought to fruition precisely what digital rights management’s doomsayers have, even before modern DRM, warned of. Amazon’s e-book platform, the Kindle, burned a book. The bizarre irony that it was Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm that were remotely removed from paying customers’ devices will find no further belaboring here, but this episode’s place in the larger picture of data freedom issues will.
This is a story that begins over two and a half years ago, in February of 2007. The iTunes store, not merely the dominant retailer for digitally-delivered music, but, to the eyes of those looking ahead, the de facto standard for music distribution in the future, was going strong. The fact that it utilized a system of DRM to weld each downloaded file to the downloading user’s iTunes account, greatly restricting the future use of that file, had concerned digital freedom advocates for years, but neither Apple nor its content partners had shown any recognition of the problem, let alone any willingness to change.
And yet, on the 6th of this month in 2007 (four days before an unrelated but memorable candidacy announcement), Apple published its infamous Thoughts on Music letter, from the desk of Steve Jobs himself. In it, the Apple CEO broke his company’s taboo of DRM, and, whether driven by idealism, market pragmatism, or EU antitrust threats, painted a vision for the future of digital music:
Imagine a world where every online store sells DRM-free music encoded in open licensable formats. In such a world, any player can play music purchased from any store, and any store can sell music which is playable on all players. This is clearly the best alternative for consumers, and Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat. If the big four music companies would license Apple their music without the requirement that it be protected with a DRM, we would switch to selling only DRM-free music on our iTunes store.
It is almost difficult to believe that we have come so far since then that a description such as this, echoing countless Electronic Frontier Foundation articles and Slashdot posts, was seen as utopian. But, by the summer of that year, Apple had made the first step in the mainstream acceptance of DRM-free, downloaded purchased content, signing EMI for iTunes Plus.
The snowball, if you will pardon a mixing of metaphors, had been transported from its fiery netherworld to the top of a mountain. From there, DRM-free digital music distribution, once the province of only independent sellers, enthusiasts, and pirates, had the momentum to completely infiltrate the mainstream. Within the year, Amazon had a DRM-free store, and Microsoft as well as others soon followed.
Now, in 2009, with all the major market players offering entirely DRM-free catalogs, music DRM stands as a failed experiment, relegated to the only place it ever belonged, online rentals. Critically, the files purchased through these mechanisms are now “permanent.” They are subject only to local retention by their purchasers, without limit, just as any other personal effect in the history of private ownership. Digital music is now free to become the standard for the distribution of recorded music.
Which brings us, then, to the parallel with e-books. So long as DRM is used in digitally delivered literature, it will never be “permanent” in the way a wood pulp-based text is. So long as its possession is revocable, an e-book will only ever exist as a disposable, ephemeral set of data, unsuitable for the sort of long-term collection we build upon our bookshelves.
Digital music is now permanent, much more so than ever before. We can back it up and relocate it in ways never dreamed of with past media; we can transmit and transform it; discs, reels, and cassettes are at last purely an historical curiosity. When books become the same liberated substance, they too will join sound recordings in the supplanting of their physical-media predecessors.
Record labels were, despite early reservations, at last able to embrace freedom and permanence: Pirates may never reform, but they are powerless against the motivated, paying customer. In time, publishers will learn the same lesson the music industry did. The future is here; it’s just waiting for us not to fear it.
CC-licensed photo by Macinator
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