Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing delves into the real effects that Apple’s iTunes has on both the music industry and the consumer, focusing on the way that music/technology is purchased and how iTunes has contributed a great deal to the stagnation of music sales.
Doctorow says that in the music industry’s desperate attempts to prevent consumers from getting their music for free, it has allowed Apple to create a system that only encourages consumers to find “alternative means” to obtain their music. Paying for low-priced downloads is a good thing, but not when there are licensing restrictions that limit how the consumer can use the music long after the date of purchase.
Steve Jobs and Apple managed to lure the music industry into licensing the copyrights for the iTunes Music Store even though the Store’s use-restrictions are comparatively mild. There’s a bit of region-coding — you pay a per-download charge based on the country your credit-card is billed to. There’s a bit of multi-use restriction — only five CPUs can be registered to a given iTunes account at a time. There are some miscellaneous restrictions, including ones that are genuinely bizarre, like limiting the number of times you can burn a given playlist.
…But there’s one restriction that’s so obvious it never gets mentioned. This restriction does a lot of harm to Apple’s suppliers in the music industry.
That obvious restriction: No one but Apple is allowed to make players for iTunes Music Store songs, and no one but Apple can sell you proprietary file-format music that will play on the iPod.
In some respects, that’s not too different from other proprietary platforms, of course. No one but Microsoft makes Word. But there’s a huge difference between Word and iTunes: Word is protected only by market forces, while iTunes enjoys the protection of a corrupt law that gives Apple the right to exclude competitors from the market.
iPod users are stuck having to purchase music from iTunes. And other music vendors are losing sales because the iPod is so popular, and it’s users can’t load music purchased from alternate vendors.
Also, while these licensing restrictions keep consumers loyal to Apple, they also limit musicians or other people who have created works in a digital format (such as writers who have and audio version of their book that has been produced digitally) are not legally allowed to reformat or edit any work that has been downloaded from Apple.
It’s otherwise legal to back up a DVD, or put a song on a home media-server, or quote an ebook in a college essay. But if you have to break through some copy-restriction technology to do this, you’re breaking the law.
It doesn’t even matter if you’re the creator of the work the lock controls! You can’t even access your own work on your own terms if you need to break a lock to do it.
Apple has managed to even prevent the natural competition that comes from reverse engineering, when one company takes all or part of some copyrighted work or technology, and creates something new from it. So, Apple’s monopoly on the digital music market diminishes competition that would foster new innovations, such as improvements to the functioning and capabilities of mp3 players. It also keeps price competition out of the market. The mp3 player has been popular long enough for the market to be flooded with a plethora of designs at different price-points, but there is not much variety available, due to the domination of iTunes and the iPod.
It might seem ridiculous that some company has the right to restrict what a consumer does with property he has paid money for after he has obtained his receipt and completed the transaction, but Apple has extended it’s reach, so that one $0.99 track is still pretty much shared property, between Apple and the consumer:
It’s easy to see how banning reverse-engineering is bad for Apple’s customers. The ban creates a monopolistic lock-in that invites bad behavior that would otherwise be checked by competition. Apple has already demonstrated its willingness to abuse its monopoly over iTunes players by shipping “updates” to iTunes that add new restrictions to the songs its customers have already purchased. The business model of buying music on the Internet is that one buys a “license” for certain uses, but the company that supplies the product to you can revoke parts of the license, and there’s nothing you can do about it. This is just abuse.
Worse still: Apple’s competition-proof music makes switching away from its product expensive for Apple’s customers. The world of consumer electronics changes quickly and you’d have to be a fool to believe that no one will ever make a superior portable music player to the iPod. iPods and other walkmans have a low price-point and turn over often — it’s no coincidence that Apple’s iPods are made out of materials that scratch if your breathe on them and look like they’ve been through a rock-tumbler after a couple weeks in your pocket — which means that you’re likely to be in the market for a new one every year or two.
This is another vivid example of how expert branding has blinded the public. Consumers, caught up in the trendiness of the iPod, have, for the most part, failed to see how limiting the gadget actually is. But in a society where disposability is still seen as a technological advance, Apple has managed to dominate the market. Since people were not expecting the popularity of downloads to explode like it did, many are probably biding their time until the next technological advance will be released to the market. Until then, they’ll keep their iPods– at least, until they have to upgrade to the newer model.