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.