Steve Jobs’s latest masterpiece

We knew Steve’s talent as a showman on stage, through his numerous appearances. It is so good that even “Mac-haters” want to see it at least once. And now, we have a proof of Steve’s talent as a negotiator and spokesperson in his piece called “Thoughts on Music”.

In a a reaction to Norway’s (and much to my personal shame, my own country) attempts to thwart FairPlay, the DRMs used in iTunes, Steve aims at convincing us that a) it’s not Apple who decides whether or not to use DRMs, it’s the majors and b) DRMs are useless anyway.

Regarding a), I don’t see how anyone could object. Should they decide to cancel DRMs on the iTunes Store, Apple probably wouldn’t loose a penny, quite the opposite. The only people who feel threatened by openly available works of art are the majors, and to a lesser extent the authors. Why “to a lesser extent”? Well, call me naive if you will, but I think artists are not in for money, deep down. They want to satisfy their egos (I am successful and you’re not), they want to be immortal (In a hundred years, they will still hum my songs), or they have some story to tell. Maybe after a few hundred of thousands of dollars, they loose sight of this, but I can’t imagine that someone could go through all the humiliation and the privation with only a long term financial goal in mind, it has to come from passion.

That leaves the majors, who, and no one will object to that either, are in for money. First and foremost, Internet is their nemesis. Back in the old days when generating buzz was very expensive, majors were needed. They invested money in artists they believed in, and then paid their interests with the success. They were the network. These days, anyone with a talent for music and a few intelligent friends with basic audio hardware and software can create something that will generate enough buzz on the Net to “go pro”, and maybe sign with a major. These companies are forced to give more guarantees and money to artists to get their exclusivity, even though the production costs have dropped dramatically. Each stolen song is a blow to their income. That’s why they impose these restrictions.
Side note : Yes, I know, they can’t really complain and they still generate plenty of money. But believe it or not, it doesn’t matter if you steal from a big player, or your friends, in the end you’re still at fault.

And that leaves b), which is “DRMs are useless”. Steve portraits a world without DRM, and says Apple would hop in, in a microsecond:

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.

I believe this is true that it’s best for the consumer. I also believe that Apple would embrace it, because they have discovered something a long time ago, that made their fame and their fortune : anyone is ready to pay the price for ease of use. If it’s easier to find a tune and pay for it (not too expensive, but still not free), than to search for it the “pirate world” (where you have different qualities, different formats, different versions, and sometimes viruses, trojans, or simply corrupted files), most people would cough up the money, to buy some time.

The only thing that could tone this perfect world down a bit, is the fact that you could freely give music to your friends and family. They wouldn’t have to search for it, so they would never pay for it. Most people don’t share their music online, it’s too complicated. They do, however, make copies for friends.

Well… helloooooooo! This is the real world speaking! Even my mom copied music from vinyls to tapes, to play them in parties and stuff, back in those prehistoric days she grew up… And before that, my great great grandad sung songs he heard without giving money to the author, when he was dining with his friends. In reasonable amounts, I choose to see this as different from piracy. Piracy is about making profits out of other peoples’ work. Sharing is more about communication and education. Besides, in most cases, it’s a much more efficient way to promote an artist than to have a very expensive TV commercial.

What’s the difference, then? Well, you will probably get angry if your cousin copies the 350+ CDs you have bought, for a total sum of roughly five hundred bucks. True, some people are “leechers”, they only take and never give, but most people agree to small amounts of exchanges. And usually, if you know that someone really loves an artist, you won’t offer him a pirated version of his album, because you know the original stuff matters more. No, you’ll rather make a copy of a few songs from an artist he doesn’t know, in order to educate this person. And if you trust him, you’ll want him to support that artist if he likes him, and buy an album.

When all’s said and done, it boils down to trust. Yes, there are some untrustworthy people, and yes, they will screw us all. But most of us aren’t really dishonest. I agree with Steve : if it’s simpler to get music by paying (and simpler also means it doesn’t ruin your financial life) than by pirating it, profits from the stores will soar. As long as it takes 3 codes and a lot of frustration to buy music online, most people will spend the same time finding what they want… for free.

As a side note, I must stress that here in France, we pay a tax on “anything that could hold a copy of (legally) obtained media”, which is then transferred to our equivalent of the RIAA in the USA. In short, we give money to the majors and the authors when we buy hard drives, blank CDs, tapes, etc… officially to minimize the loss piracy could cause.

All in all, this piece presents two key arguments against Norway’s (and France’s) attacks, and justly so. Would the end-user be happy to have DRM-free songs? Of course! Would Apple be glad to get rid of this protection that costs them engineering time? Probably so. Who holds the keys? The same people who would like us to buy twice the same album because we have two computers.


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