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RIAA urges Apple to spread DRM far and wide

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The RIAA has seized on the weakest part of Steve Jobs' anti-DRM manifesto by banging on Apple to license its FairPlay technology to other companies.

"Apple's offer to license FairPlay to other technology companies is a welcome breakthrough and would be a real victory for fans, artists and labels," the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) said. "There have been many services seeking a licence to the Apple DRM. This would enable the interoperability that we have been urging for a very long time."

This statement from the music labels' trade group serves as a weak, although well targeted, response to Jobs' letter issued on Tuesday. In the online letter, Jobs called for music labels to give up their crusade to lock down digital music with DRM technology. By opening up the tunes, the labels could benefit from a more vibrant and competitive device and music service market, Jobs argued.

The letter from Jobs follows complaints from European legislators about Apple tying songs bought through its iTunes store to the iPod. The likes of Sony and Microsoft follow a similar practice by using their own DRM technology to trap songs on their own music playing devices. Rather than abandoning its insistence on DRM, the RIAA would prefer Apple to make the first move and let iTunes songs play on a wide variety of devices. Jobs permitted such an attack by the RIAA during the only really unpersuasive part of his letter.

The second alternative is for Apple to license its FairPlay DRM technology to current and future competitors with the goal of achieving interoperability between different company’s players and music stores. On the surface, this seems like a good idea since it might offer customers increased choice now and in the future. And Apple might benefit by charging a small licensing fee for its FairPlay DRM.

However, when we look a bit deeper, problems begin to emerge. The most serious problem is that licensing a DRM involves disclosing some of its secrets to many people in many companies, and history tells us that inevitably these secrets will leak. The Internet has made such leaks far more damaging, since a single leak can be spread worldwide in less than a minute. Such leaks can rapidly result in software programs available as free downloads on the Internet which will disable the DRM protection so that formerly protected songs can be played on unauthorized players.

The RIAA went after Jobs' logic, saying that "a technology company as sophisticated and smart as Apple" could make an industry-wide DRM pact happen.

So now the pigopolists want Apple to protect the DRM that protects their songs.

It's a large request but not one out of Apple's reach. Surely the company that gave us an unhackable operating system and Jobs - he who bestowed the iPod on man - could craft a DRM system capable of outpacing the cracks of witty coders. Apple wouldn't whine away a challenge.

DRMed if you do, DRMed if you don't

The RIAA has never been able to show a real link between declining CD sales and the trade of unfettered songs online. CD sales slumped during a broad decline in the US economy that affected a wide range of goods - goods not at all touched by the scourge of P2P networks.

And, in fact, it now seems that DRM is slowing the growth of online music. Few customers want to sign up for all-you-can-eat subscription services when their songs can only be played on a limited number of devices, a limited number of times and will disappear if they stop paying for the service.

Both the RIAA and Apple are fighting with each other from tremendous positions of power. The music labels have the tightest of grips on the way music makes its way to consumers and don't want to let go of their anachronistic largesse. Apple wants to push online sales forward at a time when it has a stranglehold on the super-lucrative digital music player market, making every dime off consumers it can before a real challenge to the iPod emerges.

The squabble between two organizations with such rich history in restrictive blowhardness should be quite the show. ®

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