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Apple’s iCloud punishes honest iTunes users with DRM

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Apple (s AAPL) has rolled out phase one of its cloud music offering this week, allowing iTunes users to download additional copies of past purchases on up to ten devices.

However, users that bought their music on iTunes before Apple abandoned DRM some two years ago better get ready for an unexpected surprise: Files originally bought with Apple’s Fairplay copy protection are also once again downloaded with DRM.

Apple still charges users $0.30 per track to get rid of DRM.

A number of users complained about this strange behavior on Twitter and on the web, with one stating that this would bring back “bad memories.” We were able to confirm it by re-downloading a DRMed track as well. Apple introduced the ability to “upgrade” copy protected tracks to DRM-free AACs by paying $0.30 per song in early 2009. The so-called upgrade to iTunes Plus is still available, so it might make economic sense for the company to not offer free upgrades as part of the new ability to download additional copies of previously purchased songs.

However, the fact that iTunes still serves up DRM to users who were honest enough to pay for their music may add fuel to recent criticism that Apple’s iCloud offering rewards piracy. Beginning this fall, customers will be able to synchronize their entire music library with iCloud without uploading a single song to Apple’s servers as part of the iTunes Music Match subscription. iCloud will instead match songs by title and audio fingerprint, allowing users to download higher-quality copies of songs even for those 128 kbps files they originally downloaded from LimeWire back in the day. Music Match will cost users $25 per year.

ZDNet blogger David Gewirtz called Music Match “complete music pirate amnesty” this week, and’s Elliot van Buskirk said that the offering “reinforces the practice of downloading music without paying for it” (hat tip to

The good news is that iCloud’s Music Match will likely also work for DRMed iTunes purchases (Apple PR didn’t respond in time to requests for comment), meaning that paying subscribers will be able to free their existing iTunes libraries from DRM by paying $25 per year instead of $0.30 per track.

Until then, Apple’s practice of serving up DRMed downloads to paying customers more than two years after the company announced with big fanfares that it would abandon DRM serves as an important reminder: Once businesses and consumers buy into a copy protection scheme, they’re gonna have a hard time getting rid of it.

Image courtesy (CC-BY-SA) of Flickr user Ben Cumming.

48 Responses to “Apple’s iCloud punishes honest iTunes users with DRM”

  1. I agree, as others have stated, this is a terribly confusing, poorly written article. Never should have gotten past the editor. Thanks to other comments I understand what is really going on.

    On a different note I cannot believe both the reward Apple and/or the music industry is giving to those who have pirated all their music and the incentive they’re giving for people to pirate music and get an iTunes quality replacement for $2 a month. I need to fire up bittorrent.

    • Give people who previously paid for music the ability to re-download it unprotected, no matter what format they originally had to buy it in. Apple had to renegotiate the rights to offer these additional downloads of previously purchased music, because it wasn’t covered by its existing contracts with record companies and publishers. It should have pressed to finally “abolish DRM entirely,” like Steve Jobs suggested more than two years ago.

  2. hidden in the landscape

    Let me get this straight…

    To the author:

    1. Apple is punishing me for being honest by… allowing me to download all of my previous purchases on all of my iOS devices and iTunes-running Macs/PCs *for free* when prior to Monday I would have had to re-buy them or go through the syncing process?

    2. Being free of DRM for the rest of my life is “hard” because I have to 1) wait until the fall for iTunes Match, and 2) pay a flat $24.99 and wait a half-hour, maybe?

    3. Paying $24.99 and waiting until fall earns the title of “punishment” by you?

    To commenters:

    4. Upgrading your music now at 30¢ a song isn’t cheap (for those with big libraries), but what may cost you $250 now will cost you $24.99 in the fall with iTunes Match… and that’s not cheap? No argument that it can be costly *now*, but later?

    5. Even previous DRMd purchases will continue to be DRMd after someone signs on to iTunes Match? From Apple’s publicly available website on iTunes Match, “And all the music iTunes matches plays back at 256-Kbps iTunes Plus quality — even if your original copy was of lower quality.” What part of “all” are we missing, here? Do you honestly think that Apple will offer 256 Kbps DRM-free for music it cannot verify was purchased legitimately while denying that benefit to music it knows for certain was?

    6. Apple is punishing honest people and rewarding pirates? Sounds to me like Apple has convinced the music companies that making $24.99 off of pirates is better than making $0.00. Honestly, Apple is treating *everybody* like honest music purchasers, so I don’t care if my neighbor stole music and I didn’t; I have the pleasure of both knowing I’ve supported the artist for his or her art AND I can download that music to all my devices in one heckuva easy way.

    7. Apple is TEACHING you that piracy is okay? For an intellect capable of making that judgment, I imagine you are also are able to judge between these two alternatives: paying $24.99 to release your library and, from now on, supporting your favorite musicians by, you know, *buying* their music, versus continuing to pirate music and have iTunes scan your catalogue. Either way, money is made, it’s just that one way assumes the positive intent of *most* of the users. I’d rather Apple treat everybody like honest users than what the music companies have done for years: treat EVERYBODY like criminals.

  3. nmancer61

    I’m sure this is the start of many user frustrations with iCloud/Music/Match, which is par for Apple Internet solutions. For example, I am constantly “pinging” songs I bought from Amazon, but since the meta information isn’t quite right, Ping informs me it’s not available on iTunes and won’t ping it. For example; today, I “pinged” “How High the Moon” and Ping claimed it didn’t have it. Of course it did have it, but it didn’t have my particular album compilation. I’m wondering if Music Match will have this in spades? Hope I’m wrong, but if past performance is indication of future performance …

  4. simon

    So if you bought a track with DRM and never upgraded it to a non-DRM version, you will get a DRM version from iCloud? I see nothing shocking with this; sounds like the author is just trying to stir things up.

    Thanks for stating the obvious Janko…

  5. I’d like to feel sorry for these folks but anyone who actually buys DRM’d music deserves this, as they have essentially self-identified as an easy mark for the industry.

    Let’s put it this way, the same industry that keeps bleeding these folks continues to blanket the planet hundreds of millions of DRM-free compact discs containing bit-perfect WAV files. In fact the industry continues to whine that it wants to sell MORE of these wide open WAV files and doesn’t feel enough people have bought them.
    So what on earth is the point of DRMing the very same song when someone buys it online in crappy lossy format? That’s perverse – was the case when these DRM songs were bought and even more so now.
    If it was me, I’d be bending over backwards to reward the customers that were willing to buy DRM files, as they are a prime base for further commerce – those should be your platinum mileage frequent flyers, to use airline terms. Give them BETTER terms on everything actually, not even just parity. Unlock the damn files for free and even throw in some additional free music for them.
    But hey, if you show the music companies that your wallet is wide open, don’t expect them to do anything but empty it. They are gangsters historically and still so in this age – the idea of cultivating long term mutually beneficial customer relationships is just NOT in their DNA.

  6. Am I missing something here? What difference does it make? If you can download your DRMed music to all (up to 10) of your devices, what’s the problem? Are you people still burning CDs? Seriously? Doesn’t the same restriction apply to your DRM free music? Let me know what I don’t get.

  7. I don’t see the problem. If you bought a DRMed track, you get a DRMed track. If you don’t like it, use iTunes Plus to get a non-DRMed version, or burn it, rip it, and then use iTunes Match to get a fresh, higher-quality, DRM-free copy. If this annoys you/pisses you off, then blame the people who required DRM in the first place, and won’t just let us turn it off all together and let it be free: The Labels.

  8. Cold Water

    It’s actually worse. The “one-time amnesty” also means that anything you rip from a newly-purchased CD (maybe a gift, or you bought direct from the band) isn’t covered. I’ve got all my 6k+ tracks uploaded to Google Music…

    • Wait, where is that explained? And is it really a one-time deal? What prevents someone from uploading new torrented tracks all the time at $25/yr?

    • I don’t think it’s a one-time amnesty. You buy an iTunes match subscription for a whole year so you can match any songs you rip (or illegally torrent) for up to a year after buying the Match service.
      Then I guess you can just renew your subscription after a year if you still intend to rip or illegally download rather than buy from iTunes.

      I guess it’s better for them to get a little bit of cash from the pirates rather than no cash!

  9. Brian

    I have found the practice of buying my music on CD or DVD is just as easy and have iTunes install it on my HD. I hardly buy anything on iTunes for most of the reasons in the preceding comments, thus if my music isn’t tranferable to another medium in the future because of DRM I hopefully will be able to use the CD’s or DVD’s.

    Apple does’nt need my money.

  10. This article is complete BS. You bought something with DRM on it and now–“unexpected surprise”–it still has DRM on it! Also, it’s so poorly written it took me several reads to determine that this asinine thing is actually what you are saying, that I hadn’t misread it. Shame on you.

  11. Mark G

    I watched that piece of the keynote again and Richard is correct. iTunes Match only applies to music that you have ripped so I am assuming the DRM restrictions will remain for old iTunes purchases. Richard, if you don’t download music using iTunes Match then how does the upgraded DRM free music get to your device?

  12. “The good news is that iCloud’s Music Match will likely also work for DRMed iTunes purchases…”

    Why is that likely? It seems more likely iTunes-Match will ID iTunes DRMed tracks as iTunes DRMed tracks.

      • First you don’t download music through iTunes-Match.

        What the slide in the keynote said is that music that is matched (i.e. tracks that you didn’t buy from iTunes but that Apple can ID as tracks it has in its iTunes Store catalog) will be made available through iTunes-in-the-Cloud and automatically upgraded to 256kbps AAC with no DRM. That would not cover iTunes DRMed tracks.

    • That sentiment expressed in this comment is exactly the issue here. Steve Jobs wrote in his Thoughts on Music open letter that the only reasonable way forward is to “abolish DRMs entirely,” and then Apple made a big deal out of ridding its catalog of DRM. However, this week customers are reminded by the fact that DRM is still alive and well, and that Apple’s servers still serve up DRMed songs for those who happened to buy a protected copy of a song years ago.

      • I fail to see the issue here. It seems funny that individuals would complain that the DRM-encoded song they uploaded still has DRM.

        In this case, it would make more sense for them to download the song illegally and delete their DRM’d copy, but that’s the crux of the rewarding piracy issue.

        Strange business.

    • Sorry to burst your bubble Chris.

      Apple did not get rid of DRM several years ago. What they did is move to a model where most new music purchases in the US and some other markets were typically in the DRM-free iTunes Plus format.

      In many non-US markets such as Japan you will still find large amounts of music on iTunes that is only available with Apple’s DRM. Much of that same music is available in the US iTunes Store without DRM.

      Also many promotional tracks on iTunes are only available with Apple DRM.

      And, of course, iTunes still uses DRM extensively for non-music media such as audiobooks, books and video.

  13. David Marsden

    Isn’t it painfully obvius that this is some licensing issue that the music labels are forcing on Apple?

    Why would they want to do something that is more work for them, just to annoy people and inconvenience them. I’m sure most of that $0.30 goes to the labels, and without apple can’t legally give them DRM-tracks.

    Also, all you have to donit burn it to CD and rip it again…and your DRM free anyway.

  14. How is not getting a free ride “strange behavior”? If you didn’t upgrade the songs before, why would you expect them to upgraded now?

    It would be great if Apple did upgrade them automatically and for free, but it’s bull to chide them for not doing so.

  15. Jeffrey

    Hmm…not sure I understand. It just sounds like what you purchased is what you get. If you didn’t upgrade your old songs to iTunes Plus, you get the same DRM songs. All your existing iTunes Plus songs will still be available as DRM-free. Am I wrong about this?

  16. David Neuland

    Wow, way to be misleading with your headline.

    So, if I have music purchased from iTunes that is still DRM’ed, with iTunes Match it will… still be DRM’ed. And this is news, how? Or punishment how?

  17. Richard Garrett

    To me, the headline is inflammatory and the article, at least in part, misguided. Its no surprise that music purchased with DRM back in the day will still have it when it is downloaded to additional devices. That is the way it was purchased, that is the way its been stored and that is the way its been used. As the author points out, Apple has offered a $.30 per song solution to remove the DRM. Its fair to assume that can’t change due to existing agreements with the music companies. What is surprising, and in fairness the article points this out, is that sometime in the fall users of Music Match will, in effect, find the cloak of DRM removed (in return for a subscription cost of $25 per year). That truly does sound like amnesty for pirates and probably should have been the focus of the article. An interview or two with music company execs seems like a good follow up.

      • As I’m the GigaOMer who confirmed for Janko, how is it reasonable? If I buy the album TODAY, it’s $9.99, the same price I paid prior to DRM. If I downloaded 50 albums at no cost on bittorrent, I can pay $25 to have them all legal and DRM-free. So by being honest and buying my music, I get DRM-protected music. Had I simply torrented it, I’d have a legal, DRM-free copy for less $0.20 in my example above. That seems pretty unreasonable on Apple’s part, as well as the labels. What I learned today is that the people who don’t try to do the right thing are the ones who make out better. Piracy pays. Honesty doesn’t.

      • Really? You bought a DRMed album. They will redownload it for you… in the version that you bought. You can remove the DRM for 30 cents a track… exactly what you would have had to do if you’d never lost the tracks and wanted to remove the DRM. WTF did you expect?

        And… really? People are complaining over thirty cents a track? Christ, how cheap can you get….

      • @rick
        okay… except when you realize people have huge music collections these days. and something like 300 songs is probably less than a fourth of peoples’ music collections.
        so. do the math. 300 * .30 per song = $90…
        with something like 2000 songs, that adds up to $600 dollars. hows that being cheap? there goes your grocery money for quite a while.

      • Andy S.

        Cyndy, let’s take a look at the scenario you’ve laid out. You’ve purchased an album of DRMed music for $9.99. Now it is possible for people to purchase that same music, without the DRM, for the same price. People using iTunes Match are getting matching copies of what they paid for previously; people who bought DRM-encumbered music are getting DRM-encumbered music from iTunes Match, and people who bought DRM-free music are getting DRM-free music.

        Clearly, when you purchased the music, you had decided that $9.99 was a fair price for DRM-encumbered music. If this was not the case, you shouldn’t have bought it. It doesn’t matter what people are getting for $9.99 now.

        • This morning, The Apple Blog covered why I’m upset better than I could in my comment. The biggest issue is that I could have stolen the content for nothing, and then gotten a free, non-DRM’d version for it by signing up for this fall’s iTunes Match. Instead, I paid for it, like an idiot, and get re-DRM’d for my honesty. Apple has now taught me that I should steal music rather than buy it. Torrenters will be able to re-download music with no DRM who never paid for it. I did pay, and I get the same DRM I got three years ago. That makes sense how?

      • David Neuland

        @Cyndy (and others)

        Why is everyone so concerned with what other people, who may or may not be getting “amnesty” on pirated music, are getting? Way to feel ME ME ME ME ME ME ME entitled. Getting DRM when that’s what you paid for is fair, in any universe. Stop pointing at others and screaming “NOT FAIR!” Grow up.

    • David Neuland


      For one, you can always burn the files to CD and re-rip them, which would be a significant cost savings over the 30 cents per song. Or, more importantly, since iCloud is doing all your syncing to up to 10 iOS devices, DRM or no, does it matter if they are DRM’ed in the first place?

      This article is pointing out an “issue” that is nothing new: you bought DRM, you keep DRM. If the DRM is keeping you from putting the music on a non-Apple device, what does iTunes Match have to do with that? You’re not “Match”-ing and “iCloud”-ing to a non-Apple device anyway.

  18. Rob Crawford

    What’s the evidence that the files served by “Match” won’t be DRM’d as well? I almost expect that to be what got the labels to buy into the plan.