What’s good for Steve is good for you

by Mathew on February 6, 2007 · 6 comments

steve_jobs2.jpgCommentary about Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ clarion call for non-DRM’ed music already fills more than two pages of Techmeme, but naturally that’s not going to stop me from chiming in (it never has before :-)). And there’s no question that Jobs’ statement is a landmark event. I’ll leave it to others to decide how much of it is a heartfelt statement of belief and how much is marketing spin (Tony Hung has some thoughts on that over at Deep Jive Interests), but it’s clear that Steve-O is trying very hard to lay the blame for DRM at the foot of the music labels.

But will this Martin Luther-style nailing of principles to Apple’s digital front door have any effect on the record labels’ love of digital rights management? I’m not holding my breath. There’s no question that Jobs is right when he says that

“If the music companies are selling over 90 percent of their music DRM-free, what benefits do they get from selling the remaining small percentage of their music encumbered with a DRM system? There appear to be none.”

But that doesn’t mean they’re going to stop. If acting rationally and in their long-term best interests had any bearing on what the RIAA actually does, it wouldn’t have spent so much time and money suing some of its most devoted customers, creating what has to be the worst public relations environment for an industry since the Catholic Church burned people at the stake.

I think (as my friend Rob and Nick Carr do) that the real point of Steve’s letter comes near the end, when he mentions that Europe should step in and lean on the record labels, since two and a half of them are based in Europe (Vivendi owns Universal, EMI is British and Sony BMG is half German). Apple has been coming under fire for restricting iTunes to a proprietary song format, and Steve is clearly trying to shift the blame to the record companies.

Is he right? Absolutely. That’s what makes it vintage Jobs — as Webomatica notes, he comes out smelling like a rose no matter how you look at it.

Update:

Responses have been coming in from the major labels, and — surprise, surprise — they aren’t crazy about the idea. Edgar Bronfman Jr. at Warner Music basically suggested that Jobs was insane if he thought the labels would roll back DRM just because CDs don’t have it. But EMI is reportedly thinking about doing so, according to several reports. And the Economist has a nice piece about the whole subject here.

  • mark

    Of course there are self-serving reasons, but Rob, Nick, and Tony have got the wrong one. Go check out http://www.macworld.com/news/2002/03/04/jobs/ where it says: “If you legally acquire music, you need to have the right to manage it on all other devices that you own,” said Jobs.”

    This is a year before the iTunes store opened up on 4/28/2003. I think Steve found the labels didn’t agree with him, but his desire to open up the store led him to give in on it.

    Note also that Apple bought Fairplay from Veridisc sometime around the end of 2002 (couldn’t locate the exact date). There’s good reason to believe that Apple was not working on DRM but had to get it in order to open up the store.

    As for self-serving reasons: MS holds key DRM patents, which makes enhancing FairPlay for new innovative uses difficult unless Apple is willing to pay MS for licenses.

  • mark

    And there’s another self-serving reason: Apple’s negotiations with the labels are coming up.

    He’s just getting the market to be on his side when he confronts the labels with this, and thus reduce the cost he’ll have to pay to get it. Remember that Universal’s going in position is a few dollars per iPod sold, a la its Zune deal.

  • http://www.winextra.com Steven Hodson

    Another case of JobsSpeak which deflects the problem away from him and lays it at the feet of the big recording companies which are owned (in his words) by European companies .. an effort to get the EU lawsuits against Apple and DRM nullified in the publics mind.

    http://www.winextra.com/?p=276

  • http://www.hmtk.com/blog HMTKSteve

    Didn’t Steve Jobs once say that even if the labels did not want DRM he would still use it?

  • Mathew

    Thanks for the comments, Mark (and Steven). And HMTKSteve, I’m not aware of Jobs saying anything like that — although it’s possible that he did. I looked around in Google for a bit this morning and couldn’t find anything, although I did come across the quote that Mark mentions a few times.

  • http://www.hmtk.com/blog HMTKSteve

    It looks like my Steve jobs quote may have been attributed to this: http://www.oreillynet.com/mac/blog/2007/01/the_end_of_drm_as_we_know_it_1.html

    And it may have been a statement made on Apple’s part but attributed to Jobs.

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