BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. While retail sales of music have dropped precipitously in recent years, one of the few bright spots has been the online song sales on sites like iTunes. But the transition to this new marketplace hasn't been altogether smooth. Nervous major labels have created elaborate digital locks to prevent online piracy. They call the locking software digital rights management or DRMs. Critics say DRMs prohibit consumers from doing with their music what they'd like, including, say, playing it on non-Apple products.
This week came the first real move towards breaking that impasse. Apple announced a deal with music company EMI to sell all of EMI's music, minus The Beatles, DRM-free, allowing consumers to play their music whenever on whatever they like.
Ryan Block is the managing editor of the tech website, Engadget, and he's cautiously optimistic about the deal. Ryan, welcome to the show. RYAN BLOCK; Hi. Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: I want you to tell me why you and others are so dead set against DRM, to begin with. RYAN BLOCK; Well, I think that it kind of shows a fundamental lack of trust for the consumers that they’re selling to. And if you think about the kind of analogs in some of the other media that you consume, it would kind of be like if you walk into a store and you buy a CD, and then you get home and you realize that CD can only be played in a Sony CD player, or if you're watching ABC and you don't get a signal because ABC only tunes on RCA televisions. It's not really a very good consumer experience.
And if I download something on iTunes, I don't necessarily want to have to use an iPod to play that. Why can't I play that on another device that I like better than an iPod? BOB GARFIELD: But then how does the publisher or the retailer, in this case, Apple, protect itself against the ease with which you can also just send it along to everyone you know, and that they might send it along to everyone they know, and soon enough deprive the owners of, you know, any compensation whatsoever? RYAN BLOCK; Well, that's kind of the argument that the record industry has used for a very long time, but it's very specious. I mean, when you look at most music sales right now in America, they're occurring in the form of CDs. And CDs are not locked with DRM. So if you go to a store and you purchase a CD and bring it home, you can rip it to your computer and share that freely. BOB GARFIELD: When you saw the announcement that Apple and EMI were going to make all of EMI's catalog, minus The Beatles, available DRM-free, your first reaction was, hey that's great, looks like we've won this battle. But you're not quite as sanguine as all that. Tell me why. RYAN BLOCK; Well, I think that one of the points about the whole thing with EMI and Apple that didn't really get across in most of the mainstream media was that this was kind of EMI's idea; EMI wanted to do this. And although Apple had made it pretty clear in February when Steve Jobs wrote an open letter to the industry stating that he kind of wanted everybody to embrace a non-DRM environment when buying music, EMI was really the kind of pioneer. They were the ones who really took the risk.
Apple makes almost no money on music sales on iTunes. They make their money, they make their margin on sales of the iPod and the computers that they're selling the iPod and iTunes with.
Even if customers aren't paying a lot of money to buy music on iTunes after everything goes DRM-free, Apple's still fine because there's still a lot of music floating around out there. And I think Apple is banking on the fact that with DRM-free music, people are going to want to buy more iPods than ever. BOB GARFIELD: Now, iTunes doesn't sell only music tracks. It also increasingly is downloading TV shows, I guess, movies. What implications does this decision have for, for example, Disney movies? [LAUGHS] And I ask that in particular because when he sold Pixar to Disney, Steve Jobs got a very big stake in that company. RYAN BLOCK; Well, you know, that's possibly one of the things that frustrated me most about the announcement this week, was that Steve Jobs basically stated, when asked whether or not they're also going to be transferring television shows and movies to DRM-free formats, that no, that they wouldn't be, because movies and television shows have never really been distributed without DRM, and that's just kind of the status quo for that industry, whereas with the music industry everybody buys a CD and that's unprotected.
Unfortunately, that's just not true. Television shows are broadcast nationwide every single day, and there's no such thing as DRM for analog and digital broadcasts. Anyone can turn on a tuner and just grab a whole bunch of television shows that are floating around in the air and distribute them on the Internet.
And yeah, there's also the fact that Steve Jobs is in direct control over a number of record labels, television networks and movie studios. And to date, although all of them, every single one, as far as I've checked, is on iTunes, none of them have gone DRM-free or have announced that yet.
I think that there's a little bit of "do as I say and not as I do" going on here, but hopefully they'll correct that. And, you know, I'll be more than happy to praise Steve Jobs the moment that all the Disney studios kind of go DRM-free as well. BOB GARFIELD: Ryan, thank you so much for joining us. RYAN BLOCK; Thanks for having me. BOB GARFIELD: Ryan Block is the managing editor of the tech site, Engadget.