Consumer group blasts Jobs' DRM letter

Norwegian consumer group not happy, but Jobs' letter has stirred the debate over DRM

Just because three major online music retailers bind their music stores to specific portable players doesn't make it acceptable, a Norwegian consumer group leading the charge against Apple's DRM (digital rights management) policy says.

"ITunes Music Store and others are unfair to consumers no matter how many download services follow the proprietary approach," wrote Torgeir Waterhouse, a senior advisor at The Norwegian Consumer Council, in response to a letter written by Apple CEO Steve Jobs and posted on the Apple Web site on Tuesday.

Jobs examined why DRM exists and discusses alternatives to the current set-up in his open response to calls for Apple to allow users to buy songs from the iTunes store and play them on any device.

Norway's consumer representative has threatened legal action against Apple for violating Norwegian law by limiting iTunes customers to playing their music only on iPods. Consumer groups in Denmark, Sweden, Finland, France, and Germany have joined Norway's complaint against Apple.

Jobs points out that Microsoft and Sony also sell music that can only be played on their players, supporting a model that serves customers well with choice and a continuing stream of innovative products.

He also suggests that groups like Waterhouse's "redirect their energies" toward convincing the music labels to sell music without DRM, technology that aims to restrict how buyers can copy or use the music. The four biggest record labels forced Apple to employ a proprietary DRM system as a condition of the agreement that allows Apple to sell their music, he said.

Ideally, he said, the labels wouldn't require DRM. "This is clearly the best alternative for consumers, and Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat," Jobs wrote.

While Waterhouse agrees that the record companies carry some fault for the situation, the iTunes music store and others like it are ultimately responsible. "They're still the company that's selling music to the consumers and are responsible for offering a fair deal according to Norwegian law," he said.

Still, with his letter, Jobs' appears to have stirred up some additional pressure on the record labels to change their DRM policies. EMusic.com Inc., which claims to be the second largest music download site, only sells DRM-free music from thousands of independent labels. But the site would like be able to sell music from the four biggest labels. "We are hopeful the remaining four will one day join [the independent labels] by licensing their complete catalogs and reap the benefits of consumer demand," David Pakman, president and CEO of eMusic, wrote in a response to Jobs' letter.

Even though Jobs didn't hint that a solution might be impending, Waterhouse appeared to see a glimmer of hope. "If this means that Apple is willing to the kick the lock in technology from the [iTunes/iPod] combination this is really good news -- news that should be put into action as soon as possible to bring us all one important step closer to a well functioning digital society," he wrote.

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