Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

On iPods, iTunes, DRM, and Lock-in, in 2014, for Some Reason

Mikey Campbell, AppleInsider:

According to plaintiffs, Apple allegedly stifled competition in the digital music space by implementing FairPlay DRM protocols that supposedly “locked” iPod users in to the iTunes ecosystem. By making songs purchased through competing services unplayable on iPods at the time, Apple is said to have dissuaded users from switching over to other platforms, specifically those built by RealNetworks.

This is like some kind of archaeological dig — a lawsuit by RealNetworks against iTunes DRM and iPods.

I have argued many times that companies in a market dominating position have a responsibility and an obligation to behave in accordance with a different set of rules than their underdogs. It doesn’t matter that they might have the best product — Google is the best search engine, while iPods were the best portable music players at their time. The market has decided that these should dominate but their dominance must mean more careful rules assigned to the companies responsible.

However, this suit seems farcical. Campbell, continued:

The case revolves around RealNetworks’ “Harmony” technology, a workaround for FairPlay DRM that allowed customers to buy songs through the Real’s music store and play them back on iPod. Apple responded by releasing a software update that, among other enhancements, disabled Harmony content.

Harmony was not a workaround for FairPlay; Harmony was a reverse-engineered version of FairPlay. In order to maintain their standing with record labels, Apple almost certainly had an obligation to ensure the security of FairPlay. I can’t imagine that their agreement with record labels did not involve updating their software to ensure FairPlay wasn’t compromised.

Why didn’t RealNetworks use their own DRM format instead of reverse-engineering Apple’s? They were probably worried that Apple wouldn’t buy a license to their own scheme, thereby enabling playback on iPods. This is a fair concern; Apple didn’t license anyone else’s music DRM schemes. Apple does license third-party DRM when it made sense — you’ll recall DRM-encumbered Audible books can be listened to on iPods and everything else Apple makes — and it might have made sense in RealNetworks’ case, provided that they ever made a case for it.

But this is predicated on the necessary inclusion of DRM. If the songs did not have DRM, they could be played on iPods without any hiccups. Therefore, the claim in the suit that Apple actively prevented the playback of music acquired from non-iTunes sources is completely ridiculous. Should all companies be required to license all DRM formats? I’m surprised this suit has been going on for ten years, and that it has not yet been dismissed.