This is why you shouldn’t trust digital music

The Inquirer – and lots of other sites – reports that Apple has tweaked iTunes to reduce its functionality again.

This time, it’s streaming: iTunes used to let you deliver audio streams to five different users at the same time; now, it’s five users per day. The last time Apple tweaked what you can and can’t do with music, it was protected music playlists: you used to be able to burn ten copies of a playlist, but that was reduced to seven (although to be fair, the number of authorised machines per track was increased at the same time). So what’s next?

It’s a classic example of the problem with digital rights management technology: what you pay for today might not be what you get a few months down the line. If you purchase unprotected music, you know exactly what you’re getting: a track that you can do what you want with, forever. When you purchase protected music, each track contains a time bomb. All that’s needed to activate that bomb is a software update: download the update, and you lose some functionality. Refuse to download the update and your music collection can’t be expanded, because the music store only works with the very latest version of the music software. Older versions are not supported.

We’ve seen endless examples of software firms announcing that, as of X date, they’ll no longer support older versions of their packages; in some cases the firms have then crippled features (such as online banking in accounts software) to force their users to upgrade. There is absolutely no technical reason why the same can’t happen with music.

Allow me to put on my tinfoil hat.

In the 1980s, the music industry discovered something amazing. If it introduced a shiny new format, people would rush out to the shops and buy their record collection all over again. For the record companies, this was fantastic news: they’d already paid for those old recordings, so the cost of putting them on the new-fangled CD format was minimal; thanks to some clever wangling, they even managed to cut artists’ royalties on CD (because it was a new format and might not succeed – those reduced royalties were still in record contracts a few years ago, 20-odd years after CD became a soaraway success).

During the 80s the music business wasn’t in fantastic shape, but selling old stuff on CD kept the money rolling in. They tried to replicate the success of CD with some new formats: MiniDisc and DCC. They both bombed, and MiniDisc was reborn as a medium for recording rather than a format for buying new music. The industry waited a few years and tried again, this time with DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD. To date, neither format has been a huge success: we’re perfectly happy with CDs.

And then, digital music arrived. However, while the record companies had some success selling old records in the new download formats, there was a fundamental problem: people could simply rip their CDs to MP3 (or AAC, or WMA) without paying any extra money. So under the banner of anti-piracy, the shelves started filling with copy-protected CDs. The copy protection didn’t prevent those songs from being pirated or swapped on peer to peer networks, but that wasn’t the point: the copy protection stopped Joe Punter from ripping his CDs to his computer. If he wanted digital music, he’d have to buy a shiny new copy from iTunes or Napster.

Let’s fast-forward a bit. The music industry continues to decline, every CD is copy protected, and the market for downloads is saturated. You’re the boss of a giant record company, your share price is in the toilet and the shareholders are revolting. But there’s a solution: thanks to DRM, you know that if you flick one little switch, you can force – not persuade, but force – people to upgrade their record collections all over again. It wouldn’t happen overnight; rather, the downloads would die of a thousand cuts. You’d still be able to play the music, but you wouldn’t be able to stream it. The latest generations of music hardware (with mandatory copy protection technology) wouldn’t support it. And so on.

It’s not a question of “would you flick that switch?”; it’s a question of when.

Happy listening.