January 05, 2009

DRM = Doesn't Really Matter

If one of the biggest items to be delivered at tomorrow's MacWorld Expo is the elimination of DRM from songs on the iTunes store, as is rumored, then we are on the brink of the biggest snoozefests in technology event history. Forget that Mr. Steve Jobs potentially is suffering hot flashes, and is instead being replaced by Cupertino's wild-haired Pillsbury Doughboy, Phil Schiller. This Macworld has got to be the lowest-anticipated in terms of new product debuts that I can ever remember. And when it comes down to it, despite all the online horror and tongue-lashings, I'd venture a bet that the supposed evils of DRM that Apple has wrought on its users haven't really effected but a small percentage. I don't love DRM, but I live with DRM, and it doesn't really matter.

When Apple introduced iTunes and marketed it with the "Rip. Mix. Burn." campaign several years ago, music labels were furious, thinking the Mac-maker was embracing piracy, a second back to back blow to the maligned monopolists following Napster's runaway success. When Apple introduced the iPod in 2001, and later the iTunes Store in 2003, it had to bend over backwards to gain the cooperation of the labels, restricting who could play what songs when on what computers or iPods, and how many times they could burn playlists to CDs, all in the name of preserving profits.

Over time, some of the DRM rules were relaxed, and the advent of iTunes Plus meant you could some songs from iTunes without rights management, for an additional fee of 30 cents a song. The additional 30 cents, in theory, meant you could do whatever you wanted with the file, just like you can with any hard copy you own, be it cassettes, CDs, etc.

Although I've been an iPod user practically since the first day they were announced, and followed the Apple upgrade path through to my current 16 GB iPhone, and I now own almost 6,000 songs on iTunes, a significant percentage of which were purchased from the iTunes Store, I almost never encounter any issues with DRM. I've upgraded my laptop a few times, moving my data from one computer to the next and authorizing the new machine. I've synchronized new iPods and the iPhone and always been able to play them. My music plays on my Apple TV, and can be streamed from my wife's computer on our same network.

That my music is slathered over with Apple's proprietary DRM is not a big deal, period. I would practically have to go out of my way to find a way that having "suffered" through DRM for the better part of eight years with Apple has negatively affected my music experience. I do know that I certainly am better off than those who chose subscriptions with music companies that have disappeared and gone out of business. I'm better off with my digital music here than in stacks of CDs around the house. In fact, I gave all my CDs away to a co-worker when the babies were born as part of cleaning house!

For eight years, I've wondered if the fact I didn't care about DRM was because I am a hopeless Apple fanboy. Maybe I've fallen under the spell of believing Apple should make the rules for how I use what is ostensibly my music and media. But seriously, the drama of DRM and its limits has been so overhyped I don't even know where to start. If you want to buy your music somewhere else, go for it. There are alternatives. But there's a reason iTunes, iPod and iPhone have been such a success. It's because of what they let you do, not what they don't let you do. It's the best combo on the market, and I don't care one bit about the DRM wars which just might be coming to an end as we know it tomorrow. I never have.