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Music Technology

In defence of DRM

As I posted yesterday, I think EMI’s plan to drop DRM is a brilliant one, and I think come May iTunes shoppers can send the rest of the industry a very clear message by avoiding all DRMed tracks and going for the better quality, DRM-free ones instead. And don’t forget, EMI’s announcement applies to all digital downloads on all platforms; iTunes is just the first shop to sign up. However, that doesn’t mean DRM deserves to die everywhere – or at least, not yet.

Don’t get me wrong. DRM on songs or albums you’ve bought is stupid, evil, anti-consumer and all the rest of it, especially when CDs are often cheaper and don’t have the same restrictions. But without DRM, subscription services can’t work. I don’t use them, but a lot of people do – and without DRM, they’d lose those services overnight.

Take Napster, for example. Ten quid per month gives you pretty much unlimited music, and if you want you can change your tunes all day every day. Without DRM, that won’t work. Let’s be conservative and say that Napster users would download just 100 DRM-free songs per month. At a tenner per month that means Napster’s revenue per song would be 10p per song, but it’d be paying the music business 60, 70p per track (because DRM-free means Napster would get the same terms as iTunes). Bye-bye Napster.

I still think digital music is massively overpriced – in many cases a digital album is still more expensive than a physical copy, despite the absence of packaging, manufacturing, transport costs and so on, and the flat rate system makes back catalogue stuff even more overpriced – but realistically iTunes’ 99p per track is where the market’s currently at. If that falls to 1p per track then DRM-free subscription services may well become viable, but for now you have two choices: if you’re willing to pay per track you don’t shouldn’t have to deal with DRM (and come May, you won’t have to), but if you’d rather rent than buy DRM is the only way to do it.