Correction to This Article
The Fast Forward column in the Feb. 15 Business section incorrectly referred to an essay by Apple chief executive Steve Jobs by the title "Thoughts on Digital Music." His essay was titled "Thoughts on Music."
Time to Face the Music on File Sharing

By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, February 15, 2007

Customers might not like the idea of technology that allows some uses of music (like copying iTunes downloads to their iPods) but forbids others (like copying the same song to another kind of music player). But until recently, it didn't seem to bother the executives behind these anti-piracy systems.

They all agreed that anybody selling downloadable music and movies needed to police what customers did with their purchases.

Last week, however, the person responsible for the most successful copy-control software in the music market, Apple chief executive Steve Jobs, ruffled feathers with the question: Do we need any of this in the first place?

In an essay called "Thoughts on Digital Music" on Apple's site, Jobs wrote that his company's iTunes Store used copy-control software called FairPlay only because major record labels insisted on it. Those same labels' demands made it impossible for Apple to share its technology, he said. So his proposed solution to the "this download will only play on my iPod" problem is to abolish copy-control software altogether.

Since that remarkably blunt piece of writing hit the Web, the debate over whether technology can curb illegal file sharing has come back to life. That's good. But in the process, a lot of old myths are resurfacing -- and believing them will stop you from understand the deeper problems with the digital-media market. The myths include:

· "Apple can't share FairPlay with other companies, because the technology could get leaked and eventually prompt the labels to pull their catalogues from the iTunes store."

That's not necessarily so.

You can't completely dismiss Apple's contention; only Apple knows the fine print of its deals with the record labels. We don't. But the simple way Apple's copy-control system works should make it relatively easy for outsiders to join the FairPlay game.

FairPlay assigns the police work to the iTunes program on your Mac or PC, not the iPod. As a result, you can plug a friend's iPod into your computer and copy your iTunes purchases to it, even if that iPod is already loaded with your pal's iTunes downloads.

Plus, Apple has already taken a baby step toward putting FairPlay in other companies' hardware, in the form of Motorola cellphones that include a miniaturized version of iTunes. If the iTunes Store survived that experiment, it should be able to live through the addition of FairPlay compatibility to other playback-only devices, such as handheld organizers or car stereos.

It would be different if Apple were to let somebody design a competitor to iTunes. A lot more would be at stake in that case.

· "Microsoft solved the compatibility problem years ago when it created its PlaysForSure standard."

That depends on how you define "solved."

Microsoft can point to dozens of PlaysForSure devices from various companies, not including its own incompatible Zune. Even users of Palm organizers and smartphones can join the fun, by using NormSoft's Pocket Tunes. But when it comes to anything more complex than a handheld gadget, Microsoft takes a different stance.

Although the company allows other people to develop Window Media-compatible programs for other operating systems, such as Telestream's Flip4Mac for Mac OS X, it won't let them add PlaysForSure support.

When asked why PlaysForSure should be confined to Windows, Microsoft says it would be too difficult to keep that software secure on another operating system. That's almost the same excuse Jobs used in his online essay, except that Apple still managed to ship a Windows version of iTunes.

Either Microsoft needs to upgrade its understanding of competing operating systems, or it should admit that promoting Windows outweighs living up to its own talking points.

· "This is the price we have to pay to stop illegal file sharing."

Just try to prove that.

First, as Jobs noted in his essay, the vast majority of music sold today comes on audio CDs that impose no copying restrictions. DVDs include copying controls, but they were breached years ago.

Even if you abolished these old formats in favor of media locked up with technologies like FairPlay or PlaysForSure, you'd still have no bar to music file sharing. Both Apple and Microsoft's systems allow buyers of a song to burn it to an audio CD that can then be copied back to a computer in an unrestricted format.

The side effect: It only took a few minutes with a file-sharing program to find MP3 copies of songs sold only on iTunes. And even without the audio-CD workaround, hackers have repeatedly dismantled the defenses of FairPlay and PlaysForSure.

Either way, all you need is one unprotected copy loose in the wild; that copy can then be duplicated endlessly. And no existing anti-piracy system can stop people from downloading and playing those copies.

The technology can still serve a role in online music or movie rental services, which have drawn far fewer customers than stores like iTunes, but for purchases it does too little to justify its costs. In practice, it only stops copying by the unmotivated, the over-scheduled or the inexperienced -- the people most likely to buy a song or movie online as long as they can do so quickly, easily and cheaply.

In the music industry, a growing number of outlets beyond the big-name companies, from tiny indie-rock operations to the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Smithsonian Institution's Folkways label, have realized the futility of copy-restriction software and now sell digital downloads in open, unrestricted formats.

At this point, this all amounts to little more than expensive psychotherapy for Hollywood executives. It's the height of arrogance for them to keep sending us the bill.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company