When EMI, the smallest of the “Big Four” major labels, announced to start selling its music without technological protection measures (“Digital Rights Management”, DRM) in 2007, the other three majors quickly saw no other possibility but to follow down this road. Flanked by Apple’s CEO Steven Jobs’s “Thoughts on Music”, this move brought an astonishingly unsuccessful decade of attempts by industry incumbents to establish DRM technologies to an end.
In theory, put forward for example by industry researchers such as Mark Stefik, DRM technologies should not only prevent illegal copying practices (“piracy”) but also allow new streams of revenue by tailoring prices individually to consumer’s needs. In praxis, however, this vision never became reality: while in the world of small and many independent labels DRM never was important (see, for example, the online-store “finetunes”, which was DRM-free from the beginning), the cartel of major labels first tried to develop industry-wide and all-embracing DRM standards in the realm of a so-called “Secure Digital Music Initiative” (SDMI). Remains of this bold attempt, which was silently shut down after only two years of existence in May 2001, can only be found in the Internet archive. Controversies between content owners and hardware producers about the necessary protection levels had delayed DRM development, whose outcome was then rejected by consumers, leading DRM-mastermind Stefik to conclude in 2007: “The situation reflects the core issue that current DRM provides no compelling benefits to consumers” (see the paper “DRM Inside”).
The only refugium, where DRM solutions still prevail, is the – far from thriving – field of mobile music: supported by all four major and hundreds of independent labels, Nokia’s bundling of phone hardware and music-flatrate entitled “comes with music” uses Microsoft’s “plays for sure” DRM solution. But even in this field DRM seems to be in retreat, since Nokia recently abandoned DRM when introducing “comes with music” in China. Ironically, Nokia spokesman Doug Dawson justified waiving copy protection measures with fighting piracy (see Economic Times):
“It’s unique for China where piracy has had a stronghold.”
Does this mean DRM measures against piracy do only make sense, where piracy is weak? While such paradox lines of reasoning seem to finally herald the end of DRM in the music industry, Michael Arrington at techcrunch nevertheless reports renewed attempts of introducing DRM through the backdoor – via watermarking and cloud computing:
“All the big music sellers may have moved to non-DRM MP3 files long ago, but the watermarking of files with your personal information continues. Most users who buy music don’t know about the marking of files, or don’t care. Unless those files are uploaded to BitTorrent or other P2P networks, there isn’t much to worry about.”
Quoting an anonymous source, Arrington explains how this watermarking in the future may be used for introducing new forms of DRM protection measures, namely when users wish to store their music in cloud-computing services for ubiquitous access:
“Certain record labels have aspirations to use this hidden data to control future access to music in a return to DRM (digital rights management). The labels yearn to control where you can listen to your music and this could be a backdoor for them to achieve it. When personal libraries are stored in the cloud, it becomes possible to retrieve this personal data and match it to a user identity. If the match is successful the song plays, but if not, access can be blocked through a network DRM system such as the one Lala patented (which is now owned by Apple).”
As it stands, attempts of reviving DRM seem to coincide with the introduction of new technologies: similar to the (short-lived) hype around mobile music, cloud computing again inspired DRM initiatives, indicating that music industry representatives have not given up on DRM, yet. The example of “comes with music” in China in turn demonstrates a nearly unlimited willingness to make concessions when facing continued and severe consumer defection.
For consumers, who wish to avoid personally marked files, techcrunch points to a list of music services selling clean MP3 files without embedded personal information.