Norway and iTunes: The DRM War

Norway has taken their two-year fight against iTunes and Apple’s FairPlay DRM to its next step, and will now ask the government to force Apple to open their iTunes music to other devices besides the iPod. 

As background, this all began when Norway’s consumer ombudsman, Bjorn Erik Thon, ruled that Apple’s FairPlay DRM violated the country’s consumer rights laws by locking down iTunes Store content to iPods and iTunes. This was first communicated to Apple in June 2006, and a few months later was escalated to Norway’s Market Council, which has the power to order companies to change their business practices. In January 2007, Norway declared Apple’s DRM illegal and gave Apple until October 1 of that year to open up FairPlay to other parties. By this time France and Germany had joined in on the action as well.

It was the latter event that almost certainly prompted Jobs’ Thoughts on Music, in which he stated: 

Much of the concern over DRM systems has arisen in European countries. Perhaps those unhappy with the current situation should redirect their energies towards persuading the music companies to sell their music DRM-free. For Europeans, two and a half of the big four music companies are located right in their backyard.

Apple made other points in regards to its inability to deliver content that can be transferred to any digital music device, but the thrust of Apple’s argument remains along the lines of Jobs’ original point: DRM-free music is the best possible solution for consumers, and they are not being allowed to sell the bulk of their wares DRM-free because the labels are not willing to license it to them for distribution in that manner. 

My feeling is that a lot of this is a propaganda war. Apple fired a shot with Thoughts on Music only after Norway declared iTunes and FairPlay illegal, but hasn’t aired their case publicly since then. Meanwhile, the record labels are trumpeting DRM-free music from Amazon and other sources even as they still will not license it to Apple. I think Apple should use this latest Norway action to again state their case to the music labels and include what has transpired since then regarding licensed DRM-free music.

Apple’s response to Norway can drive their points home again. The response should outline out the following: 

  • Apple called for the end of DRM on music a year and a half ago. 
  • Apple was the first online store to deliver DRM-free music from a major label (EMI). 
  • Apple followed with lots of DRM-free titles on independent labels. 
  • Apple has millions of DRM-free tracks on iTunes. 
  • The labels, meanwhile, have licensed DRM-free music for Amazon and numerous other sites. 
  • The labels are not yet allowing DRM-free music on iTunes. 

While Norway and the labels could still argue that an alternative would be for Apple to license FairPlay, I believe the numerous DRM-free licenses the labels have provided in the last 18 months prove they know better. For true interoperability, people want DRM-free music, not more technology that will increase the cost and complexity of their chosen device. Given their licensing deals with other online stores since then, I think the labels will have a harder time under the scrutiny that would arise from Apple again pleading their case.

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