The Financial Times is reporting that Apple's negotiations with the major movie studios over video content for the iTunes Store have hit a late-term DRM snag.
After months of discussion, a sticking point has emerged over the studios’ demand that Apple limit the number of devices that can use a film downloaded from iTunes.
The specifics of their objection are more explicitly stated in another FT article on the same topic:
Currently, content on iTunes can be uploaded to an unlimited number of iPods. This means people can freely copy music content by “synching” their iPods with their friends’ computers.
I'm sure many people will be surprised to find that they can pull songs onto their iPods off their friends' computers.
When you buy a track on the iTunes Store, you're restricted to playing it on a handful (currently five) registered computers. That is, the individual computers' copies of iTunes are associated with your account at the iTunes Store. As the FT says, you can upload your purchased tracks onto an unlimited number of iPods. Now, most people probably haven't tried to dock their iPod to more than one computer, so they probably aren't aware of the fact that the iPod associates itself with a single "home" iTunes library, and treats that as the definitive source of what goes on the iPod. It's part of the way Apple keeps the synchronization experience so smooth: you dock your iPod, it launches iTunes, looks for new material (tracks, podcasts, photos, movies) as well as any changes in your playlists or library, and makes the appropriate updates.
It is entirely possible, however, for a single iPod to serve several Macs by putting the iPod into manual update mode. Apple tells you how to do it on their support site. That means I could connect my iPod to Joey's Mac and manually add tracks that he bought from the iTunes Store to it. Thus may I enjoy content I did not pay for, [Thanks, anonymous commenter—my iPod couldn't play something Joey bought on his iTunes Store account without being "controlled" by Joey's iTunes library; I'd have to let his copy of iTunes manage my iPod and potentially wipe my stuff off. That still means I could enjoy content he paid for temporarily until I resynchronized my iPod to my own library] And so the movie studios tremble in fear. But is that fear really justified?
One thing to remember about all of this is that it requires a better-than-average command of the care and feeding of iPods and iTunes, so many happy iPod owners (the ones who have never even cracked open the manual for their precious MP3 player) aren't going to be trying this stuff any time soon. Even if they did, Apple's bridge to the living room, the "iTV" device and software, doesn't stream content from the iPod; it pulls it off another computer in your home (presumably the "home" computer whose copy of iTunes "controls" your iPod). This means that you'd have to figure out some way to get the borrowed content off the iPod and back onto the "home" computer, and that's not something Apple's made easy. Even if you did crack that nut, of course, the borrower's computer presumably wouldn't be one of the five machines registered to play the purchaser's content. You would have to figure out a way to strip the FairPlay DRM restrictions from the file.
So, under the current scheme of things, two people could eventually enjoy a track only one person paid for, and the networking would be via iPod. The second person, however, wouldn't be able to move it off his iPod and onto his own machine without the aid of third party work-arounds, including some way to defeat FairPlay (I suppose one way around these restrictions would be to simply run your iPod through a dock that connects to your home theater, but then the content stays on your iPod, occupying space).
Even though these loopholes in sharing restrictions exist, none of this has led to the collapse of the music or television industries, nor to the demise of Disney. Serious movie pirates don't need to bother with ripping off iTunes Store content (that's why the studios have a piracy problem now, even though they don't yet offer their wares for download from Apple). It seems strangely paranoid of them to fixate on a marginal abuse case with a willing partner like Apple when the existing piracy scenario is already much worse. You can already rip a DVD to your hard drive, convert it to MPEG-4 video, and create an iPod-playable version of the content without the movie studios making their content available on the iTunes Store. The additional piracy that might emerge from any weakness in FairPlay is, at best, marginal, and would logically be offset by the offering iPod users an easy, reliable, and convenient legitimate option for digital versions of movies.
Tags: Big Content, iTunes Store, iTunes, iPod, Apple, movies