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The iPrice scam

Is it fair that iTunes users in the UK pay more per track than anywhere else in the EU? Yes, says Apple. No, says PC Advisor.

This column appears in the June 06 issue of PC Advisor, available now.

Apple must bless the day its products creator Tony Fadell came up with his concept of a personal MP3 player that had a tiny hard drive and a beautiful slim white case. The iPod launched to an enthusiastic reception in October 2001 – and the rest is history. iPod sales soared and Apple offered digital music tracks via iTunes download sites in 21 countries. Sales were boosted by high-profile file-sharing prosecutions in America and Scandanavia. In October 05 iTunes sold its billionth track and celebrated by funding a music-school scholarship. Things were looking pretty good… for a while.

I was one of the first to endorse DRM (digital rights management). I believe that someone who has worked hard to create something – whether it’s a piece of music, a magazine or a movie – should have the right to enjoy the fruits of that labour.

DRM technology is a subject that has given rise to much debate. Although its purpose is to ensure that original works are safeguarded from unauthorised distribution, sometimes I have an overpowering sense of something not being quite right with the way some businesses use DRM technology.

My misgivings came to mind recently, when I considered my answer to a letter from a reader about the relative costs of iTunes music tracks from the UK download site when compared to the French site. We pay 11p a track more than our French counterparts. There's no explanation other than iTunes basing its pricing policy on the "charge what the market will stand" philosophy.

Back in 2004, when this issue first raised its head, a spokeswoman for Apple said: "The underlying economic model in each country has an impact on how we price our downloads. That's not unusual – look at the price of CDs in the US against those in the UK. The real comparison should be with the price of other music-download sites in the UK."

Yet the VAT rate is higher in France, as are some copyright royalty levels so, if anything, the French track price should be higher. But we can't act as European citizens, vote with our mouses and choose to download from France, because each country's iTunes site will accept members only from that country.

European principles of a common market economy don't apply at iTunes, it seems, although I'm fairly certain that the servers that feed the downloads to both Pierre of Paris and Peter of London are based in a data centre in Luxembourg. My other beef with iTunes has always been the insistence that tracks downloaded to a PC may be legally played on only two devices – the system to which they were downloaded and an iPod. Don't think you can buy another brand of MP3 player and transfer your iTunes to it, you can't – at least not if you respect DRM. Many people feel this represents an attempt to restrict freedom of choice with regard to which player they buy – and they're not alone.

As I write this, the French government is pushing through legislation that will force Apple to change or eliminate its Fairplay DRM system, so that media files can be run on any digital-music player. Apple has described this move as 'state-sponsored piracy'. Industry insiders expect the French iTunes store to close rather than comply. And with rumours of music-download services coming from Amazon and Google, the atmosphere at Apple HQ must be worsening by the hour – these companies are big hitters and the stakes are high.

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