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crypto and public policy

Hilary Rosen, meet DRM

Filed under: Policy — May 9, 2005 @ 12:45 pm

On Arianna Huffington’s new blog, the Huffington Post, we find out that Hilary Rosen is begging Steve Jobs to “let her music go.” As the Recording Industry’s ex-president, she’s peeved because she can’t play songs from “other music stores” on her iPod. Allow me to quote the juiciest part:

But keeping the iTunes system a proprietary technology to prevent anyone from using multiple (read Microsoft) music systems is the most anti-consumer and user unfriendly thing any god can do. Is this the same Jobs that railed for years about the Microsoft monopoly? Is taking a page out of their playbook the only way to have a successful business? If he isn’t careful Bill Gates might just Betamax him while the crowds cheer him on.

Oh the irony, the irony! Where to begin?

There is, of course, the delightful point about how “preventing anyone from using multiple […] systems is the most anti-consumer and user unfriendly thing.” Yes, that’s true. Kind of like the DVD encryption and DMCA enforcement that prevents people from viewing their legally-purchased DVDs on Linux, the operating system of their choice.

Then there is Ms. Rosen’s rhetorical question about whether having a monopoly is the only way to run a successful business. We should put that question before the music label cartel and see what they think.

And then there’s the Betamax reference, which is oh-so ironic given how much the MPAA, the RIAA’s cousin, fought so hard to outlaw VCRs in the first place. Also, I think Hilary got it backwards. If MS is the “lesser technology” that eventually wins out, then Bill would be “VHS’ing” Steve’s Betamax, not the other way around.

But the most ironic part of it all isn’t this amazing pro-consumer attitude we see from the ex-RIAA president. It’s her complete failure to realize the RIAA’s responsibility in creating this music format compatibility mess we have today.

In the beginning, there was Napster v1 filesharing. And And online personalized radio. And all sorts of other innovative models that built on Ms. Rosen’s idea that anyone should be able to play a given song file anywhere. That music would be ubiquitous. But Ms. Rosen and her team of lawyers killed these models. Because the RIAA couldn’t stand to change its well-established, tightly controlled world view of nicely-packaged, sterile song selling.

And the RIAA wanted Digital Rights Management (DRM) and a strong law (the DMCA) to protect it. Not so much because people would buy fewer songs if they could copy them, as the RIAA so loudly and falsely proclaimed, but because freely copiable songs might enable alternative music distribution business models. Alternative models that might threaten the established music labels.

The RIAA dictated the way music should be sold online. They set the terms of the Apple iTunes store, of the Napster v2 online store, of the Microsoft online store. No more than 5 CDs can be burned. No more than 3 computers you can share these songs with. No direct conversion to MP3 format.

The RIAA set the rules. And with those rules, there isn’t much wiggle room. Is it surprising that the only remaining business model is to try to build the best DRM platform there is? That’s what Apple is trying to do with iTunes/iPods. It’s what Microsoft is trying to do with Windows Media, only their platform is software-only: it appears more open to the untrained eye, but don’t expect Microsoft to let me build my own Windows Media reader without paying them royalties.

The RIAA imposed DRM, and with DRM came inevitable incompatibility. Ms. Rosen, meet DRM. It’s your baby.

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