MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Today, all the songs at Apple's iTunes Music Store are for sale without digital rights management, or DRM, the technology to keep people from sharing music without permission. It also prevents law-abiding customers from making backup copies of games or transferring films from computers to iPods.
Despite the move, Joel Rose reports that DRM is not going away.
JOEL ROSE: Back in the early 2000s, there were a bunch of online music services competing to sell songs, each with its own DRM and its own set of restrictions on how and where those songs would play.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man: Yahoo.
ROSE: Most of those services are gone now, and perhaps not coincidentally, so are many of the people who used to run the major record labels.
Corynne McSherry is a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She says the music industry gradually found that DRM wasn't preventing piracy, just sales.
Ms. CORYNNE MCSHERRY (Staff Attorney, Electronic Frontier Foundation): They wasted years and years fighting the technology instead of figuring out how to work with it.
ROSE: The record labels were forced to drop DRM because their customers could get basically the same product for free, minus the annoying restrictions, from peer-to-peer networks.
Movie producers and game publishers are facing a similar situation, but they seem to have no intention of dropping DRM.
Mr. FRITZ ATTAWAY (Vice President, Motion Picture Association of America): There has to be some degree of control, so
JOEL ROSE: same product for free, minus the annoying restrictions, from peer-to-peer networks. Movie producers and game publishers are facing a similar situation, but they seem to have no intention of dropping DRM.
Mr. FRITZ ATTAWAY (Vice President, Motion Picture Association of America): There has to be some degree of control, so we're just not putting content out there in the clear so everyone can copy indiscriminately.
ROSE: Fritz Attaway is vice president of the Motion Picture Association of America.
Unlike the record labels, Hollywood studios agreed on uniform copy protection standards. Attaway concedes that DRM won't stop piracy, but he insists it does help keep honest consumers honest.
Mr. ATTAWAY: DRM really is helping consumers know the limits of the transaction they've agreed to. If they've agreed to a rental transaction, after a certain period of time, a DRM will prevent them from viewing the movie further.
ROSE: The question for critics is how much do consumers know, and when do they know it? Four years ago, the record label Sony BMG embedded software in CDs that made users' computers vulnerable to hackers. The only notice was a cryptic message on the CD package and another buried deep in a 3,000-word licensing agreement that only popped up when consumers put the CD in their computers.
Mary Engle is acting deputy director of the Federal Trade Commission. She says that's not good enough.
Ms. MARY ENGLE (Acting Deputy Director, Federal Trade Commission): You need to be very clear with consumers upfront about important restrictions on any music or video or other technology that has DRM restrictions on them. You can't hide those.
ROSE: If you do, Engle says the FTC will, quote, "come calling." To spread the word, the commission held what was billed as a town hall meeting on digital rights management in Seattle last week, and the commission staff got an earful from unhappy consumers, many of them avid gamers like Chris Dolphin(ph).
Mr. CHRIS DOLPHIN: The honest customers, not the pirates, the honest customers are the ones paying the price. And in any other situation, where law enforcement punishes the innocent to get at the guilty, that's collective punishment, and that's wrong.
ROSE: There was a lot of talk in Seattle about creating better DRM that's less annoying for consumers. Motion Picture Association's Fritz Attaway says the studios did learn some lessons from the music industry's mistakes.
Mr. ATTAWAY: We are getting content out there legally in ways that consumers find more attractive than the illegal content.
ROSE: Attaway points to the free, ad-supported video Web site Hulu as evidence that consumers and DRM can get along. But the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Corynne McSherry is not convinced. She says she's glad to see DRM finally wiped from Apple's iTunes Music Store, but she'd like to see it disappear from Apple's other offerings, too.
Ms. McSHERRY: The iPhone is locked in all kinds of ways that prevent people who buy it from using it in as many ways as they might like to. So, they're locked into the iPhone application store, and they're locked into AT&T. The DRM is only necessary to basically make sure that consumers are tied to the iPhone in specific ways that Apple can control.
ROSE: McSherry suspects it's that control, not piracy prevention, that's the real goal of digital rights management, which is why it may be around for a long time.
For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.