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Congress moots mandatory DRM scheme

Napster shall speak unto iPod - or else...

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The US Congress is pondering laws to force digital music companies to use a single, unified DRM system, in order to allow songs purchased from any download service to run on any hardware.

The House of Representatives' intellectual property sub-committee met yesterday to discuss such a move, proposed by Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, and Howard Berman, a Democrat from California.

Their beef is the ongoing incompatibility between, say, Napster's download service and Apple's iPod. The shiny white music player will happily handle songs downloaded from Apple's iTunes Music Store and protected with Apple's FairPlay DRM system, but not DRM'd Windows Media Audio files, for example.

"This interoperability issue is of concern to me since consumers who bought legal copies of music from Real could not play them on an iPod," Smith said at the hearing, Internet News reports.

Apple apparently wasn't there to add its two cents to the debate - Smith described its failure to appear as a "mistake" - but other industry players, including Napster CTO William Pence, along with consumer groups and public policy bodies, were present to tell the Congressmen to leave the emerging digital music market alone.

Essentially, opponents argue that it should be for the market to decide which services - and thus which DRM systems - dominate.

"Marketplace forces will continue to drive innovation in the DRM arena with attendant consumer benefits - new ways to enjoy digital music at a variety of different price points - while gradually solving the interoperability problem," said Pence, for example.

In short, when the business needs interoperability, we'll get it. And, it has to be said, right now consumers seem keener on lower prices than compatibility between digital music services. Real Networks' attempt at bridging its own Rhapsody download offering and FairPlay doesn't appear to have boosted the company's sales significantly. Indeed, its move last summer to slash prices for a three-week period probably did more to build Rhapsody's customer base than the launch of the DRM translation tool, Harmony. ®

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