The success of the Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails experiments would be the prologue to an industry-wide loosening of the ties around digital distribution. Shortly after the RIAA had announced the end to its litigation against individual file sharers at the end of 2008, iTunes halted the sale of music bundled with “digital rights management” protection.
Digital rights management (DRM) has been defined by the Federal Trade Commission as “technologies typically used by hardware manufacturers, publishers, and copyright holders to attempt to control how consumers access and use media and entertainment content.” DRM has made its way into everything from cell phones to in-flight entertainment systems. Many consumers have encountered the restrictions firsthand when trying to make copies of purchased music or transfer songs to mobile devices.
Apple’s iTunes music service pioneered the widespread use of DRM that came bundled with the purchase of individual digital music files online. Among the various restrictions embedded in the files were limits on the number of computers that could play the songs and the kinds of software and portable devices that could be used to listen to the music. These restrictions and assurances that the files would not be widely redistributed online were necessary for Apple to acquire the licensing they needed from the record labels to sell the music in the first place. However, after years of negotiations, the labels agreed to drop those protections in exchange for the right to variable pricing on iTunes. And now that iTunes and many other legitimate digital music offerings are DRM-free, the labels have effectively set a new industry standard in freedom and flexibility for consumers.
This belated embrace of the infinitely shareable music file comes only after lots of clumsy dancing with DRM. For every new copy protection scheme that has emerged, there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of hackers waiting in the wings to expose the technology’s flaws and share their discoveries with the world. One of the most famous hacks in music DRM history involved nothing more than the use of a Magic Marker to disable the copy protection built into CDs. And while DRM-protected music undoubtedly became more sophisticated over the years, it remained a tough sell to consumers when unauthorized copies of songs unfettered by DRM were so widely available for free.
In the Pew Internet Project’s third Future of the Internet survey, experts were asked to ruminate about the future of copyright protection. Many responses referenced the limitations of the technology and the ways consumer resistance to DRM would influence the market. Sociologist and author Howard Rheingold noted that “both iTunes and Amazon are stripping DRM from downloadable music because that is what music customers demand.” Likewise, Geoff Arnold, senior principal and software development engineer for Amazon.com offered that consumers armed with increasingly powerful technology would likely retain the upper hand in the DRM arms race: “Every individual will have access to sufficient computing power to simulate every relevant content consumption use-case, and DRM won’t be able to keep up.”
So, without DRM, will anyone pay for recorded music in the future? When Pew Internet surveys show that 75% of teen music downloaders ages 12-17 agree that “file-sharing is so easy to do, it’s unrealistic to expect people not to do it,” one wonders if a generation weaned on free music will ever consider music worth paying for.
Yet, for all the major changes in the industry’s tactics, the relaxed attitude only goes so far. Through digital fingerprinting and other tracking technologies, the record labels are monitoring copyrighted content as closely as ever and are counting on two major new strategies to help them: First, is a landmark partnership with internet service providers to monitor file sharing activity and potentially cut off service to the worst offenders. Second, is a series of partnerships with universities that would incorporate music subscription fees (predicted to be less than five dollars per student) into student tuition bills. If successful, a similar ISP-based fee could be implemented for the general public.
The subscription model has been tossed around for more than a decade, with proponents arguing that music—and any kind of copyrighted content—gains more value as it is widely distributed. Blanket fees assure that artists are paid for their work, and consumers have the freedom to listen to music on any device and in any location they choose. And as music consumption becomes increasingly mobile, the labels have begun to experiment with all-you-can-eat music download plans like Nokia’s “Comes With Music” plan which is bundled with the purchase of a cell phone. At the same time, free streaming music services continue to fill an important and growing niche; Pandora and imeem have recently unveiled iPhone apps that allow users to access their accounts and listen to music on the go.
Looking ahead, as users’ engagement with cloud computing activities becomes more pervasive and seamless, there may come a time when the difference between downloading and streaming music files becomes moot. At the moment, Pew Internet Project data shows that 69% of online Americans have already taken advantage of some form of cloud computing such as using webmail services, storing data online, or using other applications whose functionality is located on the web. As more and more internet users acquire smart phones and high-speed wireless connectivity improves, music consumers get ever closer to the “celestial jukebox” dream of any song at any time that started during the days of Napster. For now, quality and reliability are still an issue, but the march of technology will quickly stomp out that minor hurdle. Ultimately, whether you’re storing a library of music files on your home computer or streaming songs through your iPhone, it all becomes the same: instant access to the music you want.