Apple's Answer to the Digital Music Divide


By Steve Dorsey
  May 2, 2003

On April 28, 2003 Apple announced an online music service which they hope will bring an end to the controversy of online music downloading and the problems with Digital Rights Management (DRM). It's called Apple Music, and it's available today. Until now, the fastest way to obtain your favorite songs online has been to log onto various file swapping services (i.e. Napster, Kazaa, Limewire, Morpheus, Acquisition) and download them in the popular MP3 format. Songs are an average of 3 to 5 Megabytes and take about 15 minutes to download on a 56K modem. The audio quality is close to that found on CD, and a variety of portable players can use them to play back without skipping or degradation.

The Root of the Problem

The Recording Artists Industry of America (RIAA) has spent the last several years battling with many of the companies who promote file swapping. They successfully shut down Napster, and their cross-hairs are currently set on Grokster Ltd. and StreamCast Networks Inc. on the grounds that they are liable for illegal file trading done on their respective networks. Federal judges recently ruled against the RIAA in this case. They state that file swapping services of this kind have no more responsibility for copyright infringement than do VCR manufacturers who's hardware is used to copy rented films. As of this writing, the RIAA is appealing the case.

The RIAA is also in ongoing litigation against Verizon Internet Services, Inc. regarding Verizon's resistance to reveal the identity of a person who used their DSL service to download hundreds of MP3s. A judge ruled that the RIAA has the right to subpoena this person's name, upholding a portion of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) which requires Internet service providers to turn over the names of copyright violators.

As these battles rage in America's courts, America's public is making it's own decisions. How does Apple's announcement affect you? What are the benefits? Are there drawbacks?

Building a Better Technology

Audio CD's are the standard for commercial music distribution. They are optical non-recordable media compatible with over 85 percent of the computers in use in homes across America as well as portable and home stereos and automobile stereo systems. These discs contain high quality audio data files which can be decoded by any standard Audio CD player. These files can also be decoded using computers which have CD-ROM drives. Using special computer programs, users can extract the audio from the CD and re-encode it into MP3 format, making it about one tenth of the original file size with only minimal loss in quality. MP3 files are easy to listen to using a wide variety of programs and hardware devices. They are also easy to e-mail and download.

The DMCA specifies that any user who legally purchases an audio CD has the right to make a back-up of it's files for non-broadcast purposes. Users are legally allowed to create MP3 files of their music for personal use, but it is illegal to trade them with people who have not legally paid for the right to use them. If a user downloads an MP3 from the Internet and listens to it, they are violating the DMCA and can be prosecuted by the copyright holder.

In most cases, these violations are unenforceable, as the RIAA could never pursue legal action against every illegal downloader of their copyrighted material. This is why they had taken action against the vehicles which enable such illegal file swapping. The individual record companies have also resorted to "underhanded" tactics in an effort to curtail illegal downloads; they have released a flood of defective MP3s of their own. These files are the same length as standard MP3s, but they only contain 30 seconds of music - the rest is static. People spend 15 minutes downloading these corrupt files, and do not find out that their time is wasted until it's too late.

Apple's CEO Steve Jobs has identified these problems and tried to solve them in a way that benefits the consumer as well as the copyright holders. Under his plan, users do not have to pay a subscription fee and may download from a library of over 200,000 songs for 99 each or $9.99 for entire albums. The downloads are guaranteed to be of higher quality than the original audio CD tracks, and they use about 25% less disk space than MP3s. They are immediately downloadable, and they can be burned onto audio CDs which can then be played back using portable, home, or car stereos. They will even play back on Apple's industry-leading iPod MP3 player.

Does this sound like an solution which answers all of the concerns which plague the music industry? The music industry certainly thinks so. The top 5 record companies - which represent the vast majority of the popular performers - have all signed onto this plan. A large quantity of their music is currently available, and more is being added every day.

Is It Safe?

Applemusic.com does not use MP3s as it's standard. In stead, it uses the new AAC audio file format. This format is what enables Apple to provide the user with files that are of higher quality than standard Audio CDs and smaller file sizes than MP3s through superior audio encoding algorithms (see the sidebar "What is Music Encoding Anyway?"). AAC audio also contains Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology.

Digital Rights Management is a form of encryption which limits the user's ability to duplicate a file. Most previous incarnations of DRM have failed because they limit the your rights so much that you cannot enjoy the music being downloaded. For instance, Microsoft's DRM implementation does not allow the purchaser of media files to duplicate them for playback on other devices. This means that, under Mocrosoft's plan, if you purchase an audio track you cannot burn it to an audio CD to use in your car or home CD player.

Apple has identified this problem and Steve Jobs thinks that their solution is a reasonable one. Under the Apple plan, music can be downloaded from www.applemusic.com using the iTunes music management program. Once the song is downloaded, it is automatically added to your playlist. From there, you can burn that song onto an unlimited number of audio CDs, listen to songs on an unlimited number of Apple iPods, and transfer those files to up to three Macintosh computers. With the incarnation of iTunes 4, users may also share streams of their personal music collections with other users on a network or via the Internet. This is not piracy, because the listener is not downloading files which can be used later. They are simply listening to an Internet "MP3 radio station".

An End to Piracy?

The fairness of this plan comes down to individual opinion on how Apple has implemented DRM control and coordinated value versus cost. Apple is counting on the idea that the general public is in love with the idea of online music acquisition, but that they hate to deal with the missteps, inroads and unreliability of the current solutions. Apple is also largely relying on the idea the people acknowledge that stealing music is wrong, and that a better alternative will be generally adopted if it is non-restrictive and cheap. Analysts believe that Apple has hit a sweet spot with the 99 pricing, and that the majority of the public agrees with their fairly unrestricted sharing plan. The fact is: anyone can download songs from applemusic.com and convert them to MP3s by burning an audio CD of the AAC files and then "ripping" (transferring) the resulting audio CD to MP3s the old-fashioned way. This process works, but it is time consuming and easier to just go to applemusic.com to purchase the songs for under a buck each.

The integrity of existing services is also at issue. Using the popular file-swapping services, users can download MP3s of varying quality and reliability. Apple states that at 15 minutes per song, that's 4 songs per hour. At one dollar per song, you are valuing your time at $4.00 per hour. Apple thinks that most people value their time at a much higher rate. At apple.com, the quality is high, the files are smaller, and the freedom of usage is almost comparable to MP3s. . . Almost.

One issue which could become a major problem is the advent of the MP3 audio CD player. Many people have these devices in their cars and at home. They read CD ROMs which are burned with up to several hundred MP3s. These players are actually little CD ROM drives much like the ones found in computers, and they look for the MP3 files for playback. Apple's AAC format will not play back in these devices. All is not lost, though, as these devices will also play back traditional audio CDs, making it possible to listen to your downloaded AAC files in your car if you burn them to a CD using the traditional audio CD format.

Another sticking point may be Microsoft Windows compatibility. Apple's new iPod is compatible with both Mac and Windows computers, but iTunes is not. Since iTunes is required to download music from applemusic.com, this leaves a large percentage of the computing world out in the cold. Apple has announced that a Windows-Compatible version of their service will be available by Christmas.

In the End

After all is said and done, it is up to the consumer to decide if Apple has created the service which can put an end to faulty downloads, RIAA prosecution, and high-priced CDs. With the acknowledgment that there is a large sector of the online community which will never pay for anything - no matter how attractive the price - Apple has addressed the existing issues in the music industry in a way that no one else could have probably managed. Will it succeed? Only time will tell.