Technology vs. Legislation: Part Two - iTunes for Windows and the RIAA

by Alan Graham


Here to your service I will bind me;

Beck when you will, I will not pause or rest;

But in return when yonder you will find me,

Then likewise shall you be at my behest.

From Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The buzz is that iTunes for Windows will be released tomorrow, and I'm dying to see how Apple handled DRM on the PC. What deal with the devil was negotiated in order to appease the RIAA? What compromises or balance did they have to strike?

It seems the only way to pacify the RIAA (MPAA, etc.) is to negotiate and compromise innovation. It is a sad state of affairs when we have to negotiate with a lobbying group as to what we can and cannot do with our technology. While the market has spoken, and the portable MP3 player is rapidly becoming the leading consumer electronic device, the RIAA has tried to bury technology for years.

1997 - Tries to kill off personal CD duplication.

1998 - Sued Diamond Multimedia over the Rio 300 MP3 Player, claiming it was in fact a recording device. This device was the bane of the music industry. According to the RIAA, combined with the Internet, it actually encouraged consumers to "infringe the rights of artists by trafficking in unlicensed music recordings on the Internet."

1999 - RIAA loses it's appeal in the case and says "We’re obviously disappointed we lost in the Appeals Court. The court appears to have concluded that, despite Congressional intent, the Audio Home Recording Act has limited application in a world of convergent technologies. We filed this lawsuit because unchecked piracy on the Internet threatens the development of a legitimate marketplace for online music, a marketplace that consumers want. "

"Diamond declined our request to work together ... to adhere to the law," said Hilary Rosen, RIAA's president. "We believe [the Rio PMP300] is destined to damage the market for digitally downloaded music before it has a chance to begin."

Flash Forward to 2003

Four years later, Apple (fresh off the success of releasing the most popular MP3 player in history) releases the iTunes Store. The first, truly comprehensive, yet simple execution of Digital Rights Management and online music sales. With over one million iPods and millions of songs sold, did the Rio MP3 player or the iPod destroy the market for digitally downloaded music, or did they in fact create it?

So given the apparent disconnect between the RIAA and the consumer, why is it we still consider any compromise with them? They've had absolutely no vision when it comes to technology, and if it had been up to them, we would still be unable to burn music CD's, transfer music to MP3 players, or convert CD's to MP3's. In fact, if the mentality of the RIAA had been accepted years ago, there would not have been cassette tapes, reel to reel, or even CD's. If it had been up to the RIAA, our car stereos might have technical innovations like slot loading 45's.

The fact is the technology sector has always pushed the sales of media, when media sales began to decline. The CD injected new life into the music industry. The DVD increased sales in a video industry gone flat. Each time a new technology was proposed, however, large sections of the media industry fought tooth and nail to prevent it from ever seeing the light of day.

The RIAA argument is that technology encourages the average citizen to steal. The fact that I own a checkbook has not turned me into a bad check felon. The connection the RIAA tries to make between technology and piracy is absurd. Simply having a high speed internet connection and a MP3 player has not made me more prone to breaking the law.

The success of the Apple Store is proof that if consumers are presented with a simple and affordable solution for purchasing music online, they will. And if the RIAA had worked effectively with the tech sector six years ago, we might have made more progress towards curbing piracy through solutions, not lawsuits against 12 year old girls.

We are on a slippery slope each time we make a concession with the RIAA. You can't work with a bully whose idea of working with you is telling you what to do and if you disagree, they'll take you to court. These tactics damage innovation because it sucks up valuable capital on lawsuits, driving small technology companies into oblivion. And let's face it, they are a large part of the reason why their wasn't an effective and acceptable DRM in the first place. If they spent more time talking and less time suing, the piracy problem might not be so rampant.

Do we need to protect artists, their work, and their livelyhood? Of course, but that comes through empowering people, not rendering them powerless.

My major concern is what we may just compromise ourselves back to the phonograph.