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A Look at EMI's Decision to Relax Copy Protection

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

EMI, the world's third largest record company, announced a bold move this week. Starting next month, iTunes customers will be able to buy EMI songs without anti-piracy software. In other words, you can copy and share the songs legally. We're going to talk about what this means for EMI, and what this means for the industry.

If you have questions about this, give us a call. Our number: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail: talk@npr.org. There's also a conversation underway on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Joining us now from the studios of member station KQED in San Francisco is Ryan Block, managing editor of Engadget.com.

Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. RYAN BLOCK (Managing Editor, Engadget.com): Hey. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And let's begin by explaining what EMI is doing. They're willing to sell you the same old songs with the same old piracy problems for $.99. If you pay 30 percent more - $1.29 - then you get better quality song and no anti-piracy.

Mr. BLOCK: Right. Well, that's to start on iTunes. And that's not necessarily the way it's going to be when other digital music distributors start selling EMI copy protection free songs later. But right now, they're starting with iTunes. And iTunes - Apple specifically decided that they wanted to raise the price, raise the audio quality, and kind of make it premium product.

CONAN: So this is a choice for a consumer. You can get what you're getting now, if that's good enough for you at $.99 - 30 percent more, you can get better quality and do anything you want with it.

Mr. BLOCK: Right. Exactly. Unfortunate - I don't think that that's the kind of choice that consumers should have to make. I feel that when you buy music -when you buy media online - movies, television shows as well on iTunes - you shouldn't have to choose between DRM free - or Digital Rights Management copy protection free - or a media that has it. I think that it should all just come completely unmanaged. And that should just be the way that media is.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Yet - well, obviously iTunes - Apple and EMI are both involved in this. And you say, really, that EMI is doing a good thing and that the problem in this could be Apple.

Mr. BLOCK: Yeah. That's exactly right. EMI came to Apple with this. And - I mean, that's very smart. If I were EMI, I would do the same, because Apple has the leading digital music sales venue, which is iTunes. But unfortunately, Apple decided to take with their marketing a little different approach than I think some might have. And they are keeping it in their very Apple-centric format, which is called AAC.

And that doesn't really play on every music player on the market. It only plays on a select few that people have. And then in addition to that, they're making it a premium product, charging a little bit more for it per song. But if you do buy the whole album, it will come by default without copy protection now.

And they haven't raised the price on the whole album, but unfortunately, most people who buy on iTunes buy per the song anyway.

CONAN: Yeah. I was going to say, album, what's an album.

Mr. BLOCK: Exactly. People buy singles a lot on iTunes. And I think that most of the information that has been made publicly available by Apple basically states that most people buy just a variety of songs from different albums. They don't really buy the whole albums themselves.

And when they want to go buy the whole albums, they go to the store, they buy the CD and then they rip it and put it on their iPod - which is really the preferable way of doing it up until now, because that's the only way you could get the music onto your iPod without all the copy protection that makes it so difficult to use.

CONAN: And good quality, too.

Mr. BLOCK: Exactly.

CONAN: Is this going to force other companies - the other big four - to follow suit?

Mr. BLOCK: Well, you know, that's a really good question. And I would like to think that it will. I hope that it will, because I think that Digital Rights Management is something that we really need to put behind us. And I think that these companies need to start trusting consumers to make the right decisions with the media and the content that they're consuming.

As for EMI, I mean, they're one of the smaller ones. They have less to lose. Obviously, they still have a lot of clout. I mean, it's the Beatles' record label, so it's no small operation. But, you know, with sales sliding and with music basically just on a constant downward slope, I think that somebody realized it was time to make a change.

And I'm glad that EMI decided to do this. What I take issue with - and Apple is really trumpeting its horn here - is that a lot of independent musicians and record labels have been asking to sell music on iTunes for years without copy protection.

And, you know, this is not something - they didn't want to do it as a premium. They just know that music lovers don't want to have to deal with all the hassle and the fuss with the copy protection software. And Apple has continuously rebuffed these musicians and independent labels. And now all of a sudden, EMI wants to do it, and then it's absolutely acceptable. We want to embrace this wholeheartedly. I don't really buy that.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. You also point out that Steve Jobs has considerable stock in a company called Disney, which, in fact, has some record labels of its own, and apparently they're not offering their stuff DMR-free.

Mr. BLOCK: Yeah, that's exactly right. After Disney acquired Pixar, they made Steve Jobs - who runs Apple Computer and, you know, subsequently iTunes and the iPod and all of that - he's their single largest shareholder now. And Disney, as many know, they have ABC, they have Mammoth Records, they have Hollywood Records, they have Miramax. I mean, they're a major, major media conglomerate, and all of their media is on iTunes, and it's all being sold with DRM right now.

So it's kind of, you know, practice what you preach, you know. Do as I say and not as I do. I mean, I think that if Steve Jobs really wanted to take a leadership role here, he would go ahead and convince the rest of the board of directors that he sits on at Disney to start selling this media unprotected and trusting their customers like he says that he does.

CONAN: Well, let's get some listeners involved in this conversation: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. Our guest is Ryan Block, managing editor of Engadget.com, a Web magazine that covers consumer electronics and technology. And Jason's on the line - Jason from Valdosta, Georgia.

JASON (Caller): Yeah, how are you doing?

CONAN: Okay.

JASON: Good. Now, my comments here - I don't in any way condone these illegal activities, but I know people who pirate music and things like that, and the thing is the record companies are spending all this money on new software to try to thwart this, but they're spending the money to do this while the people who are actually pirating all those - you know, basically getting around these copy protections, it doesn't cost them any money.

It just costs them a little bit of time. And every single time a new form of copy protection comes out, it's almost immediately, you know, subverted. It's -maybe EMI has realized that. Maybe that's the reason for the move, I don't know, but I do think it's kind of smart. It makes it to where they get a - you know, they get a bigger overall profit, or that's the way, you know, I see it.

CONAN: Ryan Block, what do you think?

Mr. BLOCK: You know, I mean, everything you said is pretty much exactly accurate. There has not been a popularized digital-rights management system -copy protection or anti-piracy system - that has not been circumvented. Basically every single one on the market, including iTunes, if you look for it, you can find out how to get around it.

And so, I mean, basically, it's just kind of a stop-gap or, you know, something to - a roadblock to keep people from not doing it so easily, but anybody who can, you know, use Google can figure out how to get around it.

So it's really a question of, you know, how is consumer behavior changing with digital music? I mean, it's obviously a lot easier to swap tunes, but I don't think that this is about swapping tunes. And anyone who's ever had to deal with copy protection on their music knows that it's really about how difficult it is to get music on your player when you have this copy protection, or what happens when your drive crashes and you have to call Apple up and convince them to let you re-download the music that you bought because it's copy protected.

So what's really I think at stake here is the user experience, and not necessarily the piracy. I mean, people will pirate. But I think that more people will buy the music and give EMI their money than they will pirate, and those people who are pirating are just more or less oftentimes engaging in sharing music with other people who oftentimes just go out and buy that music after they've sampled it and decided they liked it.

CONAN: Jason, thanks very much for the call.

JASON: Thank you.

CONAN: So long. Let's go to - this is Christian, Christian on the line from St. Louis.

CHRISTIAN (Caller): Hi, how are you doing?

CONAN: Hi, okay.

CHRISTIAN: Earlier, Ryan said something about EMI initiating the talks with Apple, eliminating DRM, and I seem to remember a couple months ago that Steve Jobs wrote an open letter to the four major music companies about eliminating DRM, and I'd just like to get a comment on that.

Mr. BLOCK: Yeah, so he wrote in February an open letter. I believe it was called "Thoughts on Music," and it was considered to be by many a very, very -kind of a watershed moment for people who are against DRM and who are for more flexible digital rights, but I think what's interesting is that if I'm not mistaken, EMI had already been rumored to be thinking about this, and it was made pretty clear during the press conference that EMI wanted to do this, they approached Apple, and EMI is not going to be doing this exclusively with Apple, but they're going to be selling their music DRM-free to other outlets, to other music stores online.

So even though Steve Jobs letter - which basically chastised the industry for requiring DRM on music - didn't exactly fall on deaf ears, I don't think that it's entirely fair for Apple to take all the credit on this. And what's more, that letter came at an extremely opportune time for Apple, because they were facing extremely severe pressure in Europe from consumer ombudsmen, say, in Norway. Also, France had passed anti-DRM laws, specifically targeting Apple because of the system that locks you into the iPod and iTunes.

CONAN: And they're, in fact, still facing difficulties on that in Europe, as I understand it.

Mr. BLOCK: Absolutely, yeah. The EU has already launched a probe into different pricing schemes on different countries, and this actually came out the very same day that this EMI announcement was made. So they're not out of the water yet. And you know, I think that there's definitely an agenda, and these are businesses - and even though this is an incredibly pro-consumer move, and I'm absolutely for it, and I would really love not to ever have to deal with DRM again - I don't think that we should just be, you know, singing their praises because I think that there are definite agendas going on here with these businesses.

CONAN: Thanks, Christian.

CHRISTIAN: Thank you.

CONAN: You also point out this is music so far. Will this same kind of liberty, if you will, will that be extended to video, to TV and movies?

Mr. BLOCK: Not on iTunes, not according to Steve Jobs. I don't know if this will kind of start, you know, a domino effect - EMI will start a domino effect on these other media businesses to eventually make television and movies online without DRM. But I do know that Steve Jobs says that they're not analogous. Music has been sold for many years without copy protection, but television and movies have not, which I actually take issue with. That's not correct.

I mean, do you know anyone who isn't within range of broadcast television? Because broadcast television is without copy protection. You can record broadcast television and do with it whatever you please, including put it on your iPod, if you know how to do it.

So again, I think that there are a lot of holes in the kind of saccharine coating that they put on this very pro-consumer announcement.

CONAN: Again, we're speaking with Ryan Block, managing editor of Engadget.com. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go now to Gary, Gary from St. Louis.

GARY (Caller): Yes, Neal, at the beginning of this segment, you made a comment, and Ryan just kind of similarly said about doing anything you please. And what bothers me is that the general public, when they're hearing statements like this - removal of DRM I'm really in favor for, but it doesn't mean that I can legally sell it to someone else, I can legally post it anywhere I want. It just means technically I could do it, but I'm still bound by copyright laws. I'd hate to see this removal give people the idea that they can, you know, sell it and make money and really screw the artists over from, you know, making the money that they need to make.

Mr. BLOCK: Yeah, I mean, I don't think that there's anything to stop people from doing that now, ultimately. I mean, you can go to...

GARY: Technically, no. Legally.

Mr. BLOCK: Right. No, but I'm talking about in terms of circumvention, right? I mean, the whole reason for DRM is to help enforce copyright law. But we all know that you can just go to any store, pick up a DVD or a CD and copy it and sell bootlegs. Like you have if you've ever been to New York or Chinatown, you know that people just sell bootlegs constantly, and it's a major, major industry, believe it or not. And there's nothing to really stop that, and DRM doesn't actually do anything to affect that, anyway.

So I think most people just have to be wise and responsible enough to know that you should be supporting the artist, and you should be supporting the record labels who are supporting the artists. and I hope that people will do that, and I do take issue with some of the media, which is kind of playing this as something that will just help enable you to copy music.

CONAN: Gary, thanks very much. And Ryan, thank you very much for your time today.

Mr. BLOCK: Thank you.

CONAN: Ryan Block with us from KQED, our member station in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.