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iTunes to reject DRM-free movies

Apple’s copy-free policy won’t apply to video

Apple chief executive Steve Jobs may be pushing for music labels to lift copyright protection on digital music but he doesn't appear so eager to do the same for video content, despite his position as the largest shareholder in Walt Disney.

Yesterday, Jobs joined EMI Group executives to announce that EMI music will become available on Apple's iTunes store without DRM (digital rights management), the copyright protection technology that limits the way digital music buyers can share and use their music.

But even though Jobs has been pushing the music industry to drop DRM, he has different opinions about video. Movie fans can currently buy films via iTunes in the US, under a service that could become available in Europe this year.

When asked during the EMI conference call about the potential of lifting DRM from video, Jobs said: "Video is pretty different from music right now because the video industry does not distribute 90 percent of their content DRM free. Never has. So I think they are in a pretty different situation and I wouldn't hold it to a parallel at all."

Jobs was referring to CSS (Content Scramble System), technology that comes on DVDs that prevents users from copying the videos. He is arguing that CSS makes the video market different than the music industry because music CDs don't come with copy protection. As a result, Jobs' argument has been that digital music should be sold in an equivalent manner as CDs - without copy protection.

Anti-DRM activists and analysts don't buy that explanation.

"Most people believe he's taking advantage of a technicality when he says that," said James McQuivey, a principal analyst at Forrester Research. Programmes that let users get around CSS are readily available and widely used so it's not a strong argument for why the DVD industry is different from CDs.

While some anti-DRM activists say that Jobs can easily set a precedent in the video industry by dropping DRM off video content produced by Disney, McQuivey says that Jobs is hampered by larger business issues.

"No movie studio would ever support the iTunes store if it was clear that Jobs would be pushing them to remove DRM," he said. If Jobs did start offering Disney content on iTunes without copy protection, the other studios might fear that he'd start pushing them to do the same, he said.

The reason that Jobs can negotiate with the music industry and encourage announcements like the one with EMI is because the iTunes store represents about 10 percent of music sales in the US, McQuivey said. By contrast, the iTunes store has only recently begun selling video and the store has yet to prove itself as a money-maker for video content producers. That means that even if Jobs did want to push for DRM-free video, he wouldn't have the same negotiating position with the movie studios as he does with the music labels.

"When a single retail outlet has the ability to control 10 percent of sales, you have to listen to him. Apple doesn't have that clout yet in the movie business," he said.

The politics behind why Jobs may not be pushing for DRM-free video doesn't placate opponents of DRM.

DefectiveByDesign, a campaign of the Free Software Foundation dedicated to encouraging DRM-free content, has collected 6,200 signatures on an open letter to Jobs asking him to remove DRM from certain content, including video. The letter notes that last year Jobs sold Pixar to Disney and in doing so became the largest shareholder in Disney. It also notes that Disney was the first to approve distribution of movies through iTunes.

"You can set the example in the arena of video and movies," the letter reads. "Disney can be the first 'major' to drop DRM. You have the direct power to do this."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is another group that has been pushing the music and video industries to drop DRM. While the EMI announcement is a step in the right direction, "why shouldn't this apply to video sold in the iTunes video store? It seems the basic reason for removing DRM should apply there too," said Derek Slater, activism coordinator for EFF.

In Norway, which has a national consumer representative who has led the charge against the iTunes DRM policy in Europe, a consumer agency applauded the EMI move but also hopes for something similar in the video market.

"The movie industry, and any company in other cultural sectors for that matter, that's slowly entering the download service market should take special notice of this important step EMI has taken today. If they want the respect and business of consumers they also need to offer up a fair deal which among other elements includes true interoperability and the complete absence of lock-in technology," said Torgeir Waterhouse, a senior advisor on the Norwegian Consumer Council.


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