Thursday, June 07, 2007

Second class music?

First off, apologies, apologies. I've been swamped with writing projects of late, and so the prospect of writing still more just seemed too out of reach. Now that I'm out from under the really heavy stuff (at least for the moment), I figured I should get back into the swing of things on D&R. Thanks as always for your patience, dear readers.

I'm likely to get some smirks for telling the world this, but I download music from Apple iTunes. I know they're not the friendliest of companies when it comes to music downloading, especially since they've long maintained Digital Rights Management (DRM) schemes that regulate what you can and cannot do with your paid-for music. I'm not a huge music downloader, though, and so I've never really bothered to look elsewhere, despite my professed uneasiness with DRM.

All that's just a lead-up to tell you that I receive regular emails from iTunes, telling me about new music releases and other pertinent news. The other day, this message arrived in my inbox:
Now you can download music and videos from EMI that are free of DRM rules and restrictions. With iTunes Plus, you can burn the music you download from iTunes to as many CDs as you need, transfer it to as many computers (Mac or PC) as you want, or sync it to as many devices as you like. And because it's encoded in 256 kbps AAC, your iTunes Plus music is virtually indistinguishable from the original recording. Hear it for yourself — you can preview all iTunes Plus songs before purchasing. iTunes Plus music is available now for many EMI artists, such as Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Norah Jones, Coldplay, and many more. DRM-free EMI music videos are still $1.99 and music tracks are $1.29.
I'd been aware of Steve Jobs' mention a few months back of how he thought music should be stripped of its DRM. Needless to say, I was pleased to see some movement on the issue from Apple.

But then I started to think about it further. Regular, DRM-laden music downloads are 99 cents on iTunes. That means, if you want to be free of DRM, you have to pay 30 cents more per song. That's not a lot of money, admittedly, though if you're a real music aficionado, I suppose it could add up over time. Anyway, what bugs me is the principle; what's happening with schemes such as this is that Apple and other companies are creating (at least) a two-tier system of property owners. Those with more money can own their songs and videos more or less free-and-clear. Those unwilling to ante up the additional money, on the other hand, become indentured to iTunes and the record companies with respect to DRM-induced terms of use.

Something strange is happening to property, in other words. We're slowly creating a system in which there are "haves" and "don't quite haves." I'm also troubled by the way in which these companies are beginning to leverage the mere prospect of DRM to extract more money from consumers.

I'm not altogether sure what my solution to the issue would be. I'd be inclined to say get rid of the DRM altogether, though I'm sure that wouldn't sit well with intellectual property producers and distributors. Then again, maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing after all.

P.S. If you want a copy of the article to which I linked above, you can email me at:


Ron said...

sitting in an internet cafe in bulgaria while some one i know drafts a document that makes it possible for her uncle to give up his \'right\' to a villa that no one has been to in years. As I read this post, makes me think that it is time for me to re-think/teach/ read what counts as property (bodies, land, factory, stock options, toilet paper, digital songs)--if all are property, makes me think distinctions are needed. I recall in a red reading group back in the day to distinguish between property and consumer goods,but i don't recall why and i dont recall the idea of a cultural commodity being talked about \I was a young and culture was just a ruse./ but, your post and your work does get me thinking I need to get back to such a elemental concept (of modernity?)as property. thanks for the reminder. in the meantime, back to post-communist property rights, off to see a representative of the state. which makes me wonder if prodoun may have had it right all along "property is robbery."

Ron said...

ok, still in an internet cafe in eastern europe, but thought i would take the time to share something i found on property that looks interesting,

\i am still trying to get my head around the idea that if i pay more i get more 'control' over the thing i buy. This is the underlying warrent of digital music ala itunes right? how might the same x cost two different prices at the same time. In this example are we talking about the same x, or are we talking about x and x +1 ( with 1 being a kind of control fee which makes it more than the x). IF i understand this formally, is there another commodity that has something like a control tax associated with its purchase that makes it more "valuable" than without the control?

Ted Striphas said...

Hi Ron,

I'm glad you responded to this post. I find the whole iTunes price structure to be vexing, so I'm pleased that someone else seems to, too. Thanks for taking up the dialogue.

For my part, I agree--the issue here in some ways warrants a return to theories of property. I'm also with you in that at some point I need to read more Proudhon. (Thanks as well for posting the link to the article you mention on property. I'll be sure to read it.)

Still, I think the property issue could be something of a red-herring. What more is there to say about property, really? Is it real or isn't it? Is there such a thing as a property right? What do we do when goods become non-rivalrous? Personally, I'm beginning to feel like these questions (poorly posed though they may be) perhaps are the wrong ones to ask.

Lately, then, I've been thinking less about property per se than about the conditions under and the extent to which it can be given away. Apropos, I'm intrigued by the concept of "alienability," a la Radin's book Contested Commodities. She doesn't use "alienability" in the strictly Marxist sense, but rather in the more expansive legal sense of "inalienable rights," i.e., rights that cannot be bought, sold, or otherwise exchanged. From my perspective, what we're witnessing in the case of digital music (and surely other commodities now) may well be conditional (rather than absolute) forms of alienability beginning to realize themselves more fully in the realm of commodity exchange.

That's my 2 cents, anyway. Thanks for writing from Bulgaria, and let's continue the dialogue....

tycho said...

It's my understanding that Apple lets you upgrade your 99 cent songs to "Plus" songs for the 30 cent difference, which I think ameilorates the difference slightly.

Also, the quality difference (aside from the drm) is relativly small, such that, depending on your setup and your ears, it's possible that you might not notice the difference.... And while it's tedious, it is possible to burn DRM'ed itunes tracks to CDs and then rip them back to MP3 or AAC (unprotected) which gets around the DRM. It's just a pain in the ass to do that.

So while theoretically (which I suppose is the point), there are 2 tiers of ownership, I think practically the gulf between them is pretty narrow. So it'll be interesting to see how this pans out.


Ted Striphas said...


Thanks for your comment, especially your bringing to light much better than I the technical aspects of how DRM-free iTunes works. Much appreciated.

In light of your comment, I think the point I raised still stands: more money means more "freedom" of ownership; less means less. My argument is, I suppose, a macro-level one, so perhaps the effects I'm speaking of will be thwarted at the micro-level. Then again....?