The Last FairPlay Deal Gone Down

Will it ever happen? Will Apple one day stop issuing keys to unlock the FairPlay-protected music you purchased from the iTunes Store — iike Yahoo just did with music purchased from Yahoo Music, and Microsoft intends to do in three years with MSN Music?

Without the keys to unlock music protected by Digital Rights Management (DRM) technologies, you can’t move the music beyond the five computers previously authorized to play it. Even if you have five authorized computers at the time the keys disappear, you won’t be able to authorize any new computers to play the music. While these protected songs continue to play on authorized computers, it is unclear what happens if you upgrade your operating system or switch operating systems on any of these computers.

While the headlines seem to blame the vendors (Microsoft, Yahoo, maybe one day Apple), the fine print blames the music labels. If it weren’t for the ironclad agreements with music labels that enforces the use of some form of DRM technology, Apple could strip the FairPlay protection from songs and enable customers to remove it from their previously purchased music. This wouldn’t be hard to do technically, but four of the big five music labels (EMI is the exception) would have to change their policies and accept the purchases of songs without DRM.

I predict that the only way Apple would ever stop issuing these keys would be if DRM finally died the death it deserves. The music labels know that Apple, now the largest music retailer on the planet, can’t unilaterally stop using DRM and can’t afford to alienate its customers, and is therefore locked into this situation and must continue to provide the keys to unlock DRM-protected music. In effect, the success of the iTunes Store has now guaranteed that DRM will remain in place long after the technology is obsolete — arbitrarily propped up by music labels that won’t change their minds.

I hope Apple will eventually strips FairPlay from all purchases songs. It was cool last year when Apple quietly dropped the price of its “iTunes Plus” DRM-free tracks from $1.29 to $.99 each, making its iTunes Plus catalog the largest DRM-free catalog of purchasable music in the world. It would be even cooler for Apple to drop FairPlay entirely, while still playing fair with consumers and the music industry. But that’s a tightrope only Steve Jobs may be capable of walking.

Meanwhile we’ll have to rely on inferior-sounding audio CD copies (not data file backups, but audio CDs burned with this music) for our purchased music. The only other choice would be to find a way to hack through FairPlay and offer a utility for people to break open their protected sound files. Good luck with that.


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