23 March 2006

Those perfidious French have done it again. Apparently, they have had the temerity to tell Apple it should open up its FairPlay digital restriction management system to consumers. In effect, give consumers the means to circumvent the mechanism used to prevent songs downloaded from its iTunes store from being copied.

Well, almost.

Some people posting about how Apple should quit the French market have got a little ahead of themselves. I'm half expecting someone to demand that Apple's music players should be hardwired to reject Johnny Halliday and Jacques Brel* songs in retaliation. Anyone want to listen to a FreedomPod while they munch their freedom fries? Wired struck a more balanced note.

In reality, all that has happened so far is that the French parliament decided to pass a law that demands that digital content - of any type - bought online should be playable on any type of music player. This decision seems to affect Apple the most because the company has refused to license its FairPlay system to any other manufacturer. Microsoft will also be affected but, because it licenses its system to hardware makers, the problem looks less serious. Apple has, for some strange reason that is actually alienating consumers, decided to overreact.

Somehow, Apple has managed to paint the French move as tantamount to legalised piracy. That is stretching the truth to breaking point. The position taken by the French seems entirely reasonable to me. The consumer has bought the music; the consumer should not be restricted in what computer or portable device that music is played back on. Nobody wants to be in the situation ten years from now where they find they cannot listen to a song just because they don't want to pony up for a new iPod - maybe Creative finally got around to making a player that looks good and works better. The French government is not asking for DRM to be removed; simply for decoding software that understands the format to be able to run on any computer. Apple has no real justification for maintaining a lock over iTunes songs. It is not as if cross-subsidies are involved, although the company might regret having cut a deal so friendly to record companies in the hope of driving iPod sales if FairPlay does have to be licensed out.

Om Malik's presentation of the lock-in as being a good thing is simply bizarre. Having Fairplay run on another machine will not suddenly stop iPods from working (unless there is some very strange code inside it). Nothing in the French law says the DRM has to work well on another platform, just that it works.

I'm curious as to whether Apple would even fall foul of this new law. To be fair to the company, its copy-prevention system is more flexible than most of the alternatives. Backing up songs from iTunes actually involves turning them into CD tracks that you can then rip to move the songs to just about anything you like. Should France target Apple, this might prove to be the company's defence for keeping FairPlay to itself: everything needed for interoperability is already in place. It's not seamless. But it would allow you to play the music on anything you like (assuming you did the backup before you tossed iTunes). Try doing that with a Windows Media file that has been given the DRM once-over. And I can imagine the chagrin at Microsoft when somebody realises this law may mean having to provide source code for Linux distros.

Having said that, I have yet to buy a single DRM-locked music file from anybody. CDs work for me just fine - the lack of fair-use rights in the UK notwithstanding - and I like the selection of regular MP3s from the likes of Emusic and Wippit (if only they would make the site just a bit more stable). AllofMP3? Sorry, never heard of it mate.

* Well, Belgium's in that part of Yoorp too. And the songs sounded kind of French.