DRM on streaming services: The ultimate antifeature

This is a guest post by Free Software Foundation board member Benjamin Mako Hill. It focuses on the rise of DRM in subscription streaming services like Spotify and Pandora. The post was written for the 2015 International Day Against DRM.

Between 2003 and 2009, most music purchased through Apple's iTunes store was locked using Apple's FairPlay digital restrictions management (DRM) software, which is designed to prevent users from copying music they purchased. Apple did not seem particularly concerned by the fact that FairPlay was never effective at stopping unauthorized distribution and was easily removed with publicly available tools. After all, FairPlay was effective at preventing most users from playing their purchased music on devices that were not made by Apple.

No user ever requested FairPlay. Apple did not build the system because music buyers complained that CDs purchased from Sony would play on Panasonic players or that discs could be played on an unlimited number of devices (FairPlay allowed five). Like all DRM systems, FairPlay was forced on users by a recording industry paranoid about file sharing and, perhaps more importantly, by technology companies like Apple, who were eager to control the digital infrastructure of music distribution and consumption. In 2007, Apple began charging users 30 percent extra for music files not processed with FairPlay. In 2009, after lawsuits were filed in Europe and the US, and after several years of protests, Apple capitulated to their customers' complaints and removed DRM from the vast majority of the iTunes music catalog.

Fundamentally, DRM for downloaded music failed because it is what I've called an antifeature. Like features, antifeatures are functionality created at enormous cost to technology developers. That said, unlike features which users clamor to pay extra for, users pay to have antifeatures removed. You can think of antifeatures as a technological mob protection racket. Apple charges more for music without DRM and independent music distributors often use "DRM-free" as a primary selling point for their products.

Unfortunately, after being defeated a half-decade ago, DRM for digital music is becoming the norm again through the growth of music streaming services like Pandora and Spotify, which nearly all use DRM. Impressed by the convenience of these services, many people have forgotten the lessons we learned in the fight against FairPlay. Once again, the justification for DRM is both familiar and similarly disingenuous. Although the stated goal is still to prevent unauthorized copying, tools for "stripping" DRM from services continue to be widely available. Of course, the very need for DRM on these services is reduced because users don't normally store copies of music and because the same music is now available for download without DRM on services like iTunes.

We should remember that, like ten years ago, the real effect of DRM is to allow technology companies to capture value by creating dependence in their customers and by blocking innovation and competition. For example, DRM in streaming services blocks third-party apps from playing music from services, just as FairPlay ensured that iTunes music would only play on Apple devices. DRM in streaming services means that listening to music requires one to use special proprietary clients. For example, even with a premium account, a subscriber cannot listen to music from their catalog using an alternative or modified music player. It means that their television, car, or mobile device manufacturer must cut deals with their service to allow each paying customer to play the catalog they have subscribed to. Although streaming services are able to capture and control value more effectively, this comes at the cost of reduced freedom, choice, and flexibility for users and at higher prices paid by subscribers.

A decade ago, arguments against DRM for downloaded music focused on the claim that users should have control over the music they purchase. Although these arguments may not seem to apply to subscription services, it is worth remembering that DRM is fundamentally a problem because it means that we do not have control of the technology we use to play our music, and because the firms aiming to control us are using DRM to push antifeatures, raise prices, and block innovation. In all of these senses, DRM in streaming services is exactly as bad as FairPlay, and we should continue to demand better.

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DRM on streaming services: The ultimate antifeature is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.