When Steve Jobs published his anti-DRM "Thoughts on Music" open letter to the music industry earlier this month, everyone heard what they wanted to hear.
Most of the US music industry heard it as a threat to its income, as a proposal to return to a pre-dot-com Napster era when music was traded willy-nilly and rights-holders did not get paid.
Many independent US labels felt the letter cynically omitted them from the conversation, since they already sell music without DRM but are currently excluded from selling the same files on iTunes for that very reason.
European music executives had already made their feelings known in a Jupiter Research study conducted this past December and January. Some 62% thought that digital music would benefit overall from DRM-free files that could be used with any player — not just iPods — which had been a source of particular contention in France.
And 40% of the respondents thought that government or consumer effort would be needed to make DRM-free digital music sales happen.
The stakes are high worldwide.
eMarketer estimates that digital music spending in the US will reach nearly $5 billion in 2010, up from $1.1 billion in 2005. While the US made up approximately 59% of the digital music market worldwide in 2005, eMarketer expects this to decline to 42% in 2010 as online and mobile digital music services proliferate outside the country.
In the US, digital downloads have accounted for a small percentage of overall music sales. That is expected to change as mobile music moves beyond early adopters.
Historically, the most successful format developments in the music and entertainment industries — the VHS, the CD, the DVD and the iPod/iTunes combination — have been driven largely by consumer demand. With consumers now overwhelmingly in favor of eliminating DRM, there is ample reason to believe that the benefits of such an approach would outweigh the risks to major labels.
eMarketer digital music specialist Paul Verna went a step further.
"The majors would be well-advised to follow the lead of their independent counterparts and adopt a DRM-free strategy."
Mr. Verna’s colleague, DRM specialist Ben Macklin, also framed the debate in clear terms.
"Content providers should not force law-abiding citizens to steal," said Mr. Macklin. "If the rightful owner does not allow consumers to get the content they want, when they want it and how they want it, they will get it elsewhere.
"Content providers can either get a piece of the action or put such tight restrictions on their content, through DRM and restrictive terms-of-service agreements, that consumers will simply avoid them."