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The Economist on Apple DRM lock-in

Apple iTune’s dirty little (lock-in) secret continues to come out to the fore – this time via “Apples are not the only fruit” – an article in the print edition on The Economist.

Because the music store is only compatible with the iPod, a customer who wants to abandon Apple’s player in favour of something else must replace all the music he downloaded from the store. It is as though a person’s entire record collection worked on only one brand of gramophone. Hence with each song a customer buys, he binds himself a little more tightly to the iPod. Apple offers its customers a “Trojan horse”, according to Mr Shope. Customers embrace its iconic device, and then, like the hapless Trojans, find they have fallen into the hands of the gift-givers.

I’m pleased that the general public are being made more aware of this fundamental flaw with iTunes, and the whole DRM concept. I continue to find people who buy all their music via iTunes but have no idea that they are unable to take that music with them over to a player from a rival manufacturer.

Now, Kevin Marks responds to the article by suggesting:

This thesis is only supportable if you ignore the original feature of iTunes, it’s ability to burn CDs.

Sure, this is true – you can burn the DRM’d music to CD at which point the DRM wrapper is lost and potentially it can be ripped back into standard MP3 or DRM-free AAC format. However there are a few issues:

  • The idea doesn’t scale – if you’ve been an iTunes customer for a few years now, how many albums have you got? How long would it take you to burn them to CD? And rip back to MP3?
  • If you burn a CD from the iTunes downloads the quality will be slightly worse than if you bought the original CD. Fortunately the loss is less with Apple’s AAC than with MP3 but it’s noticeable.
  • What about the cost of the blank media? Sure you might just use this as an exercise to “flush the DRM away” so you might only need one CDRW. But if you’re saving a copy of each album you’re going to need add 50p per blank CDR.
  • This method still defeats the fundamental and reasonable point of wanting to conveniently purchase music in formats that are ready to transfer to my preferred player platform. It shies away from the fact that the media companies are yet to offer something mutually acceptable to both the listener and the artist on this front.

But despite the “CD burning option” in iTunes, all of this is all a hack. iTunes is not leveraged (anymore) for CD burning, it is about the provision of music wrapped in DRM. As Kevin points out at the end of his blog post:

…don’t buy the videos – you can’t burn them to DVD.

The video-aspect of the iTunes proposition is totally and 100% DRM – with no option to remove the restrictions via burning or otherwise.

It concerns me that the public still don’t know what they are really getting into – and locking themselves into – when they buy DRM’d music and video. I’m glad that articles like the one in The Economist are addressing the lack of information.

Published in Thoughts and Rants


  1. Ben, you’re confusing iTunes the app and the iTunes store again. The primary purpose of iTunes the app these days is getting stuff onto iPods smoothly and conveniently, so iPods retain their valuable ease-of-use lead over other players.
    Part of that is the smooth integration of CD ripping and playlist creation. Part of it is making it easy to buy the song you want right now, and have it on the iPod within minutes.
    The CD burning stuff is a still a key part of the purchase service, making the virtual tangible encourages people that they have bought something worth $10

  2. Ben Ben

    Really sorry Kevin but not sure at all where I’ve got the two confused????

    Also, I see the two part of a single value chain, and for that is what iTunes’ is – a value chain comprising of parts that only work together (I cannot buy from the iTunes store without the iTunes app, and I can’t manage/play/burn iTunes music from the iTunes store without the iTunes app).

  3. sangsungshing sangsungshing

    i like audio cd burner as you?

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