European Commission launches iTunes probe

Written by Brett Thomas

April 4, 2007 | 10:56

Tags: #drm #ec #itunes

Companies: #apple

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. At least, that's what my physics teacher always told me. I never thought it would apply to technology news, though. Just a day after Apple and EMI announced DRM-free music, the European Commission has announced an investigation into the iTunes service. The charges? Unfair competition and price fixing.

The price fixing charge is actually one that I've recently ranted about. Essentially, the EC is attacking the requirements that different countries only be allowed access to certain music, and at different prices than their neighbours. If your IP comes from a particular country, you have no option to buy certain songs, and your cost may be a few pence per song more expensive than a person one country over. Digital distribution, the EC argues, should make these differences obsolete, not more easily enforced for the gain of the record labels.

Unfair competition charges arose due to Apple's FairPlay DRM model, which the EC has said penalises consumers. By definition, the body argues, DRM is an assumption that the consumer will be guilty of a crime before they even purchase the product. Also, the limited number of computers and devices authorised to listen to the music at any one time restricted a user's rights to access his or her content at will.

Believe it or not, the music service isn't the real target of the investigation, it just happens to be the the best doorway into the real goal - record label practices. The EC paperwork makes it clear that iTunes is functioning as a rather unwilling carrier for practices popularised by the RIAA and MPAA. DRM and pricing structures are things that Apple actually has argued strongly against ever since it launched the service. "Our current view is that this is an arrangement which is imposed on Apple by the major record companies and we do not see a justification for it," said Jonathan Todd, the Chairman in charge of the investigation.

However, it's likely Apple (and the consumer) will suffer the penalties for the investigation. iTunes is the largest legal distribution service in Europe as well as the world, and the costs to defend itself certainly won't come from the penny-pinching pockets of the RIAA. It seems almost as if Apple is being penalised for making the first step simply because it's not straight to the end result. The record companies were already scared of digital distribution - it took the careful design and negotiation that went into iTunes for them to embrace any form of it at all. Since that time, Steve-o and company have been fighting against various aspects of RIAA practices including DRM - and now that the business model has proven to be revenue that even the RIAA can't ignore, people are just starting to listen. People like the heads of EMI...

What do you think of the EC's announcement? Long time coming, or possibly more harm than good? Tell us your thoughts in our forums.
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