DRM: The Movie

As we are now smack bang in the middle of the build up to Christmas (or the Holiday season for our US friends) many of the seeds of discontent have already been sown for the coming year. As a whole new audience of digital music fans unwrap their shiny new MP3 players they are about to discover a whole new dark and mysterious worldDigital Rights Management, and it’s sequel: Interoperability (or the lack of it). Digital Rights Management has all the key elements of a Christmas (Holiday) blockbuster movie:
(Blog adopts deep baritone movie trailer voice)
Many light years ago, it was a time of heroes….with the digital music universe torn apart in a battle between good and evil….starring:
The secret Force: a secret and magical power that uses secret codes locked up in the dark vaults of all powerful software companies. With its own strange language of codecs and keys, incomprehensible to normal human beings.
The Dark Side: Illegal file sharing whispering “come over to the Dark Side…life here is free of the curse of DRM. We don’t care what model of MP3 player you have, you can play our music on any device”
The Rebels: in their shiny white devices the rebels seem to be winning all the key battles against the Dark Side
The Allies: although they are supposedly on the same side as the rebels, the Allies get their power from a different incarnation of the secret force and fight in their own separate armies.
(end of silly voice)

The sad thing is, to some one who doesn’t know much or anything about digital music (e.g. a lot of the soon to be new MP3 owners) concepts such as DRM and audio codecs probably sound this fanciful and mysterious. Interoperability is going to be a key consumer battleground in 2005. Once new MP3 player owners realize that they can’t download Napster tracks onto their iPod or iTunes tracks onto their Zen, then many will simply turn to illegal file sharing for online content. File sharing is potentially on the verge of a downward curve and there is a real window of opportunity for legitimate music market to make up serious ground. But if the market remains fragmented and divided by corporate boundaries file sharing is best placed to profit. And it simply doesn’t wash to say that interoperability doesn’t matter because iPod owners will only want to buy their music from Napster:

Firstly: consumers like to choose. What if an iPod owner wants to have a subscription service? Until Apple launch one they cannot take that option.
Secondly: iPod may be the market leader, but it is only part of the market. What happens to all the non-Ipod MP3 player owners who want to try out iTunes?

There may be a window of opportunity, but it is only slightly ajar and interoperability threatens to brick it right up again.