Friday, June 22, 2007

implications of the EMI-Apple "DRM-free" strategy

Here are a few thoughts, but I’d love to hear more as the conversation progresses.

I think there are two ways to use my argument: as a heuristic for studying technology in a public context, and then as an analysis of the specific case of copyright, DRM, etc. As a heuristic, the idea is that one has to look at the regime of alignment beneath the question of whether a technology has social implications, and this means looking at the efforts of political mobilization and cultural legitimation, and what they’re up against. This says nothing about the particular case, yet, it just reminds people of what they should attend to, what is often overlooked.

So it strikes me that, in terms of the heuristic, the EMI-Apple announcement is a useful reminder that these arrangements are incredibly fluid, like shifting sands. In fact, it makes me think that the harder thing to explain is how some arrangements actually manage to persist. Funny that I've reached this point, since most of my work in this field has been driven by a concern to explain power structures that don't seem to move, that work to hold cultural practices and social formations still. So stories about technology that see only progressive, inevitable liberation are naive and problematic, but maybe so are stories that see only hardening, inflexible hegemony.

It may also urge us to think about how particular actors are in several arrangements simultaneously. So, as Kristin noted, the European legislatures now considering laws that would hold DRM as anti-competitive are suddenly relevant to Apple in a way they were not before, and are not for Apple’s partners.

In terms of the actual case, I think one way to understand the EMI-Apple move is as a sign that the political mobilization around DRM persists, but that the cultural legitimation of DRM has failed substantially. The fact that the DRM-free tunes will use AAC format rather than MP3, and will include metadata that may be useful both for tracking piracy and regulating purchases, continues to help lock the immensely popular iPod to iTunes, and continues to support the incorporation of pricing into the technical format of the music, suggests that the aspirations of Apple and EMI have not changed dramatically, despite Steve Jobs' recent manifesto. But the fact that dropping DRM can be a viable strategy at all for a major like EMI is certainly a sign that DRM, which was carefully named and articulated by the majors to have positive connotations, is now seen by most people (not just the die hard free culture types, but ordinary consumers) as negative enough that dropping it is actually a selling point. Valenti and others have done a very good job painting file-trading as piracy, but the effort to discursively install DRM as the shining solution has clearly failed. But this doesn't mean that the logic of linking control and commerce goes away.

No comments: