Reports are popping up all over that the major record companies are cautiously gearing up to sell music in MP3 format, without any DRM (anti-copying) technology. This was the buzz at the recent Midem conference, according to a New York Times story.
The record industry has worked for years to frame the DRM issue, with considerable success. Mainstream thinking about DRM is now so mired in the industry’s framing that the industry itself will have a hard time explaining and justifying its new course.
The Times story is a perfect example. The headline is “Record Labels Contemplate Unrestricted Music”, and the article begins like this:
As even digital music revenue growth falters because of rampant file-sharing by consumers, the major record labels are moving closer to releasing music on the Internet with no copying restrictions — a step they once vowed never to take.
Executives of several technology companies meeting here at Midem, the annual global trade fair for the music industry, said over the weekend that at least one of the four major record companies could move toward the sale of unrestricted digital files in the MP3 format within months.
But of course the industry won’t sell music “with no copying restrictions” or “unrestricted”. The mother of all copying restrictions – copyright law – will still apply and will still restrict what people can do with the music files. I can understand leaving out a qualifier in the headline, where space is short. But in a 500-word article, surely a few words could have been spared for this basic point.
Why did the Times (and many commentators) mistake MP3 for “unrestricted”? Because the industry has created a conventional wisdom that (1) MP3 = lawless copying, (2) copyright is a dead letter unless backed by DRM, and (3) DRM successfully reduces copying. If you believe these things, then the fact that copyright still applies to MP3s is not even worth mentioning.
The industry will find these views particularly inconvenient when it is ready to sell MP3s. Having long argued that customers can’t be trusted with MP3s, the industry will have to ask the same customers to use MP3s responsibly. Having argued that DRM is necessary to its business – to the point of asking Congress for DRM mandates – it will now have to ask artists and investors to accept DRM-free sales.
All of this will make the industry’s wrong turn toward DRM look even worse than it already does. Had the industry embraced the Internet early and added MP3 sales to its already DRM-free CDA (Compact Disc Audio format) sales, they would not have reached this sad point. Now, they have to overcome history, their own pride, and years of their own rhetoric.