July 11, 2014

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Congressional Hearings on Music Interoperability

Yesterday a House subcommittee on “Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property” held hearings on interoperability of music formats. (The National Journal Tech Daily has a good story, unfortunately behind a paywall.) Witnesses spoke unanimously against any government action in this area. According to the NJTD story,

[Subcommittee chair Rep. Lamar] Smith and other lawmakers who attended the hearing agreed with the panelists. The exception was Rep. Howard Berman of California, the subcommittee’s top Democrat, whose district encompasses Hollywood. He suggested that the confusing proliferation of non-compatible copy-protection technologies could be impeding the development of a legal digital-music marketplace.

What’s going on here? Rep. Smith’s opening statement gives some clues about the true purpose of the hearing.

Legitimate questions have been raised regarding the impact of digital interoperability on consumers. In the physical world, consumers didn’t expect that music audio cassettes were interoperable with CD players. Consumers switching from music cassettes to CDs bought the same music for $10 to $20 per CD that they already owned. Consumers accepted this since they felt they were getting something new with more value – a digital format that made every reproduction sound as good as the first playback.

Music is quickly becoming an online business with no connection to the physical world except for the Internet connection. Even that connection is increasingly becoming wireless. Some of the same interoperability issues that occur in the physical world are now appearing here. Consumers who want to switch from one digital music service to another must often purchase new music files and, sometimes, new music players.

For example, music purchased from the iTunes Music Store will only work on Apple’s iPod music player. Music purchased from Real cannot be accessed on the iPod. Last year, both companies became involved in a dispute over Real’s attempt to offer software called Harmony that would have allowed legal copies of music purchased from Real’s online music store to be playable on Apple’s iPod music player. Apple objected to this effort, calling it “hacker like” and invoking the DMCA. Apple blocked Real’s software from working a short time afterwards.

This interoperability issue is of concern to me since consumers who bought legal copies of music from Real could not play them on an iPod. I suppose this is a good thing for Apple, but perhaps not for consumers. Apple was invited to testify today, but that they chose not to appear. Generally speaking, companies with 75% market share of any business, in this case the digital download market, need to step up to the plate when it comes to testifying on policy issues that impact their industry. Failure to do so is a mistake.

As a result of disputes like the one between Apple and Real, some have suggested that efforts to boost digital music interoperability should be encouraged by regulation or legislation. Others have urged Congress to leave the issue to the marketplace and let consumers decide what it best for them.

The hearing is clearly meant to send a “we’re watching you” message to Apple and others, urging them not to block interoperability.

Of course, if full interoperability is really the goal, we already have a solution that is hugely popular. It’s called MP3. More likely, what the subcommittee really wants to see is a kind of pseudo-interoperability that allows products from a limited set of companies to work together, while excluding everyone else. It’s hard to see how this could happen without a further reduction in competition, amounting to a cartelization of the market for digital music services.

The right public policy in this area is to foster robust competition among digital music services of all kinds. A good start would be to remove existing barriers to competition, for example by repealing or narrowing the DMCA, and to ensure that the record companies don’t act as a cartel in negotiating with music services.

Comments

  1. Ulrich Hobelmann says:

    This is BS. People want freedom. They want different formats. For me that would be Ogg Vorbis or VBR AAC in 160k each. Since iTunes only gives me 128 CBR AAC with DRM, I don’t buy there. That’s every consumer’s freedom. We already have interoperability, rippable to every format at every bitrate/quality. It’s called CD.

    If the government starts prescribing what formats people can and can’t use, we’re just another step closer to fascism. As it seems from the other news on this blog, we’re going there, anyway; fast.

  2. Neo says:

    “For example, music purchased from the iTunes Music Store will only work on Appleā€™s iPod music player.”

    Until, of course, you burn it to CD, rip it back as mp3, and load it up on your Diamond Rio. :)

    Comparing it to tapes not working in CD players is bogus IMO. It’s more like if CDs divided up into “Sony CDs”, “Panasonic CDs”, etc. and Panasonic CDs wouldn’t work in a Discman, Sony CDs wouldn’t work in your Panasonic sound system’s CD player, and so forth. :P

  3. Ulrich Hobelmann says:

    Reripping means you get all the loss in quality from the AAC encode AND from the mp3 encode!

    Besides it wastes one physical CD every time you do it.

    I think a standardized file format (Ogg, MP3, AAC without DRM) is all you need for interoperability. Of course companies like MS or Apple are free to give us music on WMA or DRMed AAC, they just shouldn’t expect everyone to buy it.

  4. Anonymous says:

    MP3 does not give you full interoperability. If I want to play MP3 files on my portable Ogg Vorbis player, then I need to transcode the audio and have it end up sounding like crap. If you want full interoperability then sell the files in any of the various lossless compression/encoding formats(e.g. CDDA, or flac). This allows transcoding to whatever format the consumer desires while maintaining whatever degree of quality they choose.

  5. Larry Rosenstein says:

    This is a bogus issue. It’s not as if Apple has a monopoly on music, since you can get most songs from any online store. If Apple’s customers (of which I’m one) think they are too locked in to Apple, then they can switch to a store based on (say) Microsoft’s DRM, which is supposed to be available in more products.

    Congress should be looking at the music companies, which are the real music gatekeepers and the one that would like to see consumers re-purchase their music over and over.

    And why focus on music and not other area where companies lock in customers. Printer vendors use a variety of means to ensure that customer have to buy their brand of ink. So what’s wrong with Apple making iPod customers buy “Apple-branded” music?

  6. Ulrich Hobelmann says:

    @Larry: I don’t think it’s wrong that WMA files don’t play on the iPod, so you are forced to buy AACs. But I think it’s wrong that all your files bought on iTunes (because you have an iBook, say), will *only ever* run on an iPod.

    The MI always claims we don’t own the music, only the license to listen to it. Then they should give us the music in any format we want, to listen to on any device that’s capable of playing it!

    Hey, we *buy*, we *pay*! That said, I don’t buy stuff in any restrictive online store, just CDs. Maybe I’ll try out the independent online MP3 shops or the semi-legal ones like allofmp3.com

  7. Todd Jonz says:

    There’s an aspect of Apple’s post-purchase lock-in strategy for the iPod that I don’t think I’ve ever seen discussed before: the user interface to Software Update.

    Personally I object to devices whose behavior can be modified after I purchase them. I passed on Tivo for this reason and purchased a stand-alone DVR that is admittedly not as user friendly as Tivo. Unlike Tivo, over which the user has no control over the installation of new firmware, the firmware on an iPod is only updated at the discretion of the user. If I so choose, I can stick with the firmware that came pre-installed on my iPod when I purchased it. Granted, this may mean that I will lose some functionality (such as the ability to purchase content from ITMS after the PyMusique “fix”), but nevertheless, it is *my* decision whether or not to download and install the periodic firmware updates that Apple makes available.

    There is, however, a sort of disguised nagware feature in Apple’s Software Update software. If I decide not to install an update, it will remain on the list of uninstalled updates forever. For some time I did not install MacOS updates that were not applicable to my harware environment (e.g. Bluetooth, Airport base station, etc.) This, however, caused Software Update to find “new” software every time it ran, and eventually I succumbed and just started installing anything and everything that Apple pushed down the pipeline. I imagine this is pretty standard behavior for most users.

    It would be a very simple matter to include a “Not Interested” checkbox beside each update in the list and retain this information in a preferences file on my system. With this data available, Software update could ignore items on my “not interested” list (i.e. they wouldn’t trigger a “new software is available” alert) unless I ran it with an explicit “show all” option.

    Why did Apple choose not to implement such a simple and, from the user’s perpective, desirable feature? Do you suppose their desire to control the firmware in my iPod in perpetuity might be a factor?

  8. Julian Bond says:

    I wish someone would take a long hard look at the iPod and compare what we get with what we could have got. I’m not talking about wishlists but what is reasonably available and appears on other similar machines. eg:-
    - No hidden directories
    - USB driverless drag and drop of music as well as data files.
    - USB Host support
    - WMA support
    - Open source firmware

    And then consider what features like this were left out more or less deliberately by Apple in order to support their entry into the content distribution business with iTMS.

    Now you can argue that iTMS is a loss leader to help them get market share of the hardware player market wher the real money is. But I feel that the iPod is sufficiently attractive that it would have sold extremely well with or without iTMS.

    What bugs me is that Apple is now on both sides of the fence. And both their content distribution and their hardware is compromised by that position.

    And for the Apple Zealots, I’m not trying to have
    a go at your favourite iProduct. I’m just really concerned that the technology business is not providing a reasonable check on the content industry by giving the market what it wants or by lobbying against them. What they actually seem to be doing is playing along because they think they want some of *that* pie as well as their own. In that frespect they are just as much part of the problem as the content industry.

  9. Give me a break! says:

    This is nothing more than Real Inc. greasing hands in Congress in order to hold a committee meeting (best government money can buy!). Why? They hope to brow-beat Apple into selling Real (a competitor) a license for Fairplay so that Real can get a slice of Apple’s market, without getting into an expensive game of one-upsmanship. Anyone who thinks that this is really about interoperability is deluding themselves. Ask Real about Streambox VCR [http://www.eff.org/endangered/list.php#streambox] and see how they feel about “interoperability”.

  10. Burt Naznitsky says:

    4th Biggest Lie – “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

    Ancient proverb – “A man with much knowledge and little wisdom is more dangerous than a man with sword.”

    Rep. Lamar Smith can take this where the moon don’t shine. Just another ego from some obscure Texas county who needs to remember the long forgotten Conservative credo “Laissez Faire.”

  11. Wes Felter says:

    Todd, that feature does exist, but it’s under the Update menu.

  12. Ulrich Hobelmann says:

    Burt, with “conservatives” running amok worldwide it seems indeed as if libertarians are the only hope. Too bad, in the USA and Germany they are hopelessly outnumbered…

    Julian: you summed up the situation nicely. A good music store would take no big fees for its own profit (in iTunes about half the song-revenues stay at Apple). It would distribute music, and the artists would get most of the money.

  13. Alexander Wehr says:

    We as consumers always had the tools to insure perfect interoperability between devices, then the DMCA was passed.

    Maybe congress should stop bone-headedly blaming manufacturers and software developers for the unfair competition and do something meaningful like reform the DMCA to return the the public their fair use rights.

    Also.. i’m getting really sick and tired of these people saying the market under the DMCA is a “free market”. A free market does not shackle competition by making interoperability illegal “unless you consult hollywood first”.

    P.S. a slight aside.. there are some reasons the ipod works the way it does:

    -the music folder is hidden because music is hashed into numbered folders for more efficient operation (this also applies to why music cannot simply be dragged and dropped)
    (one can actually be used for “drag-n-drop” general file storage. Simply “enable disk use”)

  14. Alexander Wehr says:

    We as consumers always had the tools to insure perfect interoperability between devices, then the DMCA was passed.

    Maybe congress should stop bone-headedly blaming manufacturers and software developers for the unfair competition and do something meaningful like reform the DMCA to return the the public their fair use rights.

    Also.. i’m getting really sick and tired of these people saying the market under the DMCA is a “free market”. A free market does not shackle competition by making interoperability illegal “unless you consult hollywood first”.

    P.S. a slight aside.. there are some reasons the ipod works the way it does:

    -the music folder is hidden because music is hashed into numbered folders for more efficient operation (this also applies to why music cannot simply be dragged and dropped)
    (one can actually be used for “drag-n-drop” general file storage. Simply “enable disk use”)