Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs has blamed record labels for problems caused by digital rights management (DRM) and has said that he would throw away the restrictive DRM technology used by Apple's iTunes tomorrow if he could.
DRM should be abolished because it has not worked, said Jobs, and will probably never work. Consumers, he said, should lobby record companies to convince them to abandon the technology.
But the tech visionary's buck passing has been criticised by one of the bodies taking Apple to task in Europe over the lock-in that means that iTunes tracks can only be played on Apple's iPod machines.
"It is iTunes Music Store that is providing a service to the consumers and therefore has the responsibility to offer up a consumer friendly product," said Torgeir Waterhouse, senior advisor to the Norwegian Consumer Council, which is taking action against Apple.
Jobs's surprising announcement came in an open letter on Apple's website, and said that if record companies would only agree, he would sell unrestricted tracks on iTunes. "This is clearly the best alternative for consumers, and Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat," he said.
DRM controls what customers can do with songs they have bought, such as restricting the number of copies that can be made. Record labels use it as their main guard against music piracy.
But despite selling two billion DRM-protected tracks last year, Jobs said that the technology does not stop piracy. "DRMs haven’t worked, and may never work, to halt music piracy," he said. "Though the big four music companies require that all their music sold online be protected with DRMs, these same music companies continue to sell billions of CDs a year which contain completely unprotected music."
Jobs explained that the need to have a viable DRM system meant that Apple had to build the iTunes music shop so that only iPods could play its tracks. He said that the lock-in meant that Apple could easily fix problems and patch security breaches when they did happen.
But that lock-in is the subject of legal action in Europe, where Norway, Sweden, France and Germany are all taking or considering action against Apple for possible breaches of consumer and competition law.
"We're happy to see Steve Jobs take on the responsibility that follows from Apple's role as one of the leading companies in the digital sphere and comment on the complaint issued by the Norwegian Consumer Council," said Waterhouse. "It's really encouraging to see him put forward statements that resemble his previous statement from 2002 when he told the Wall Street Journal 'if you legally acquire music, you need to have the right to manage it on all other devices that you own'."
In response to the Norwegian Consumer Council's complaint, that country's Ombudsman declared in January that it believed that Apple's DRM system, called Fairplay, breaks Norway's consumer protection laws.
Jobs addressed the case and the others on the same lines in Europe, and used his open letter to try to make those campaigners turn their attention away from Apple. "Much of the concern over DRM systems has arisen in European countries," he said. "Perhaps those unhappy with the current situation should redirect their energies towards persuading the music companies to sell their music DRM-free."
Waterhouse rejected the suggestion that campaigners should divert their efforts away from Apple. "It's quite clear that the record companies carry their share of the responsibility for the situation that the consumer are stuck in," he said. "However no matter what agreements iTunes Music Store has entered into, it's still the company that's selling music to the consumers and is responsible for offering the consumer a fair deal according to Norwegian law."