Good Apple, Bad Apple
Published 14:05, 07 June 11
Since Apple has replaced Microsoft as the leading patent-wielding cheerleader for closed-source computing, it will come as no surprise that I have no intention of providing a rapturous run-down of yesterday's wondrous announcements. But there is one aspect I'd like to explore, because it has interesting wider implications.
Apple's cloud-based music service turned out to be something of a damp squib, at least in terms of expectations. This was no Spotify-killer, but an admittedly useful way of syncing up content on your various devices, with one very unusual feature:
If you want all the benefits of iTunes in the Cloud for music you haven’t purchased from iTunes, iTunes Match is the perfect solution. It lets you store your entire collection, including music you’ve ripped from CDs or purchased somewhere other than iTunes. For just $24.99 a year.
Here’s how it works: iTunes determines which songs in your collection are available in the iTunes Store. Any music with a match is automatically added to your iCloud library for you to listen to anytime, on any device. Since there are more than 18 million songs in the iTunes Store, most of your music is probably already in iCloud. All you have to upload is what iTunes can’t match. Which is much faster than starting from scratch.
As I wrote a couple of weeks ago when the first rumours of this feature were circulating, this is potentially rather important. That's because iTunes Match doesn't seem to care how you obtained those non-iTunes tracks, and it will happily include those obtained through ripping CDs or even piracy. Since Apple will presumably be paying the recording companies for every track that it syncs for you in this way, this means that the latter will receive some remuneration for unauthorised copies of music tracks - something that has not been possible before.
That's noteworthy because it weakens the argument that “piracy is killing music” - manifest nonsense anyway: the music industry as a whole is actually growing - since it turns unauthorised content into another source of revenue. It also shows how different business models allow money to be made from content that is freely available. In this case, it comes from the syncing service that Apple provides, and that's indicative of other models that provide added value on top of the basic content.
So in this sense, Apple's move is welcome. But there is also a more worrying aspect that needs to be considered:
imagine a copyright owner — a small music label, say — looking to engage in shotgun subpoena litigation. One source of file-shared music is the DRM-free downloads offered by Apple and Amazon. Some of those tracks, though, contain identifying watermarks. Apple could look for those watermarks, and alert the copyright owner whenever it found one that was obviously the result of file-sharing — for example, if more than ten different users had the same track with the same watermark.
Now, this situation wouldn't be Apple's fault - it's because of the absurd copyright laws that reward litigation over innovation. Apple is to be praised for offering this innovative new service, which is both convenient for users and provides income for the music companies. But it's worth bearing in mind that it could well turn into yet another weapon to be used by the latter against the former. As such, it's another argument for not trusting centralised cloud services over which you have little or no control.