Of iPods, Lock-Ins and the DMCA

by Lee Gesmer on August 15, 2006

As an ambivalent owner of an Apple iPod I’ve given a lot of thought to the fact that songs I download from Apple’s iTunes will not play on a portable device other than an Apple iPod. If I want to play my iTunes music collection on another manufacturer’s MP3 player, today or five years from now, I’ll be unable to play the tunes downloaded from iTunes. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act prevents competitors from reverse engineering the protection Apple embeds in these files, and therefore Apple has, in effect, a government enabled lock-in.

The only legal way around this restriction requires users to burn the iTunes songs to a CD and then import (rip) them back into iTunes as MP3 files. This eliminates Apple’s digital rights management (DRM) and “frees” these tunes, but what a hassle and disincentive to buy music from iTunes. Do I do this? Yes. Do I like it? Ah …. (If you’d like to gain a better understanding of how iTunes DRM works and how to avoid it, click here.)

Cory Doctorow has written a scathing editorial in Information Week discussing the policy and legal issues involved in Apple’s DRM program. A few choice quotes from the article:

Reverse engineering is a common practice in most industries. You can reverse-engineer a blender and make your own blades, you can reverse-engineer a car and make your own muffler, and you can reverse-engineer a document and make a compatible reader. . . . But [because of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act] the iTunes/iPod product line is off-limits to this kind of reverse-engineering.

Apple’s competition-proof music makes switching away from its product expensive for Apple’s customers. The world of consumer electronics changes quickly and you’d have to be a fool to believe that no one will ever make a superior portable music player to the iPod.

Steve Jobs really doesn’t care how many CPUs you play an iTune on, or whether you burn a playlist seven or 10 times. He wants you to get locked into iPods, . . .

Read the full article here before you download another tune from iTunes. You may conclude that you still have no choice, but at least you’ll have a better understanding of your predicament.

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