Apple boss calls for DRM-free music

Apple CEO Steve Jobs has called for digital rights management to be scrapped in an open letter to music fans, the company's critics and the music industry.

The move follows mounting criticism in Europe and the US over copy-protected songs available for digital download on the iTunes Store , and to a lesser extent on music stores run by Microsoft and Sony . All three have been accused of locking consumers into proprietary formats and players - a system that's increasingly being tested across Europe, often with Apple as the accused .

In his defence Jobs says Apple had been given no choice by the big four music companies - Universal, EMI, Sony BMG and Warner - over DRM-protected content on iTunes. He said the big four had been 'reluctant and cautious' over digital downloads and that if Apple's Fairplay DRM was breached and then not fixed within a matter of days that the record companies could "withdraw their entire catalogue from the iTunes Store."

Jobs goes on to point out that copy-protected downloads account for less than 3% of music that is typically stored on iPods, with 97% of content being ripped unprotected from CDs sold by the music business itself.

The Apple boss says that so far the company has sold 90 million iPods and 2 billion songs on iTunes, or an average of 22 copy-protected tracks per iPod sold.

He then goes on to lay out three alternatives for the future:

1. For the current state of play to continue. Jobs says "customers are well served with a continuing stream of innovative products and a wide variety of choices."

2. For Apple to licence its FairPlay technology to third-parties. The problem with this he concludes is that it would be difficult for Apple and its licencees (companies that make iPod accessories, etc) to acts quickly enough in the event of a DRM breach to stop the secret keys that enforce the DRM from becoming widely available in the wild. This would, of course, lead to record companies withdrawing content from online music stores. We had previously reported that Apple was thinking of to third parties.

3. For record companies to scrap their demand for copy-protected content through online music stores. Jobs argues: "In such a world, any player can play music purchased from any store, and any store can sell music which is playable on all players. This is clearly the best alternative for consumers, and Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat. If the big four music companies would license Apple their music without the requirement that it be protected with a DRM, we would switch to selling only DRM-free music on our iTunes store. Every iPod ever made will play this DRM-free music."

Of the three choices, Jobs argues that the third is the best choice for consumers, the music industry and makers of digital music players.

He concludes by calling on those unhappy with the current state of play to direct their attention towards the music business, arguing that 2.5 of the big companies - Universal, EMI and the BMG half of Sony BMG - are based in Europe, the source of the biggest moves legally against Apple's Fairplay DRM scheme.

"Convincing them to license their music to Apple and others DRM-free will create a truly interoperable music marketplace. Apple will embrace this wholeheartedly," Jobs says.

Steve Jobs' letter follows an outbreak of peace between Apple and Apple Corps ( The Beatles ' record label), that could eventually lead to Beatles albums being made available on iTunes. What we don't know is what the terms of the deal - if it happens - are. It could well be that Apple Corps wants the Beatles output to available on all music stores, and DRM-free at that.