To today’s consumers, convenience is king. That’s about the only conclusion I can take from a recent post on the blog Copyright and Technology interpreting recent RIAA statistics to demonstrate that, where music is concerned, “DRM is back.”
It wasn’t so very long ago, in 2009, that iTunes announced it would stop putting DRM on music (and the labels had already been permitting Amazon to sell music DRM-free to try to compete with Apple). Since then, commercial digital music downloads have been DRM-free.
But at the same time, streaming music services promising the long-sought-after “celestial jukebox” were getting started. Since these services provide you the right to listen to music but not “own” it, they still use DRM. According to those recent RIAA statistics, in 2016 revenues from such DRM-using streaming services surpassed those from DRM-free digital downloads.
Not that this should come as a great surprise. As I said a couple of years ago, the idea of renting the library has become a lot more attractive than owning the media. Thanks to my Google Play Music account, if I should want to listen to the latest concert album by Yes to see how their new lead singer Jon Davison sounds, I no longer need to go out and buy it, or even order it from Amazon. All I have to do is punch “Like It Is” into Google Play Music, and a few seconds later I’m listening. And it would seem I’m not the only one who feels this way.
I’ve long held that the average person doesn’t care about DRM as long as it doesn’t get in the way of doing what he or she wants to do. Average people happily buy ebooks from Amazon despite their restrictive DRM because they don’t need to do anything Amazon’s DRM blocks off—and Amazon makes the purchase process so dead simple. It would seem that music is the same way, and this is a trend that’s only going to continue.
Are all-you-can-read ebook services like Kindle Unlimited or Scribd ever going to go the same way? It seems unlikely. Music services are able to offer nearly any artist, album, or song that consumers could want to hear, and the differences in selection from one service to another are generally very small. However, ebook services can only cover small fractions of their individual markets.
The reason comes down to a key difference between music and book copyright called compulsory licensing. Under compulsory licensing, it is very easy for music services to license music from rights holders. As long as the service is willing to pay a reasonable licensing fee, the rights holder is compelled to license them the music. However, there is no such licensing in place for books, and publishers are free to withhold their books from these services. So no ebook service is going to be able to offer the kind of broad-ranging selection that is exactly what makes the music services so compelling.
Hence, for now, most DRM-bearing and DRM-free individual ebook sales seem unlikely to be threatened by the rise of Kindle Unlimited. But music consumers have demonstrated that they don’t really care about DRM as long as they can listen to the music they want to hear when they want to hear it.