Radio & Music Technology

Apple and the Pirate Everyman

“Don’t Steal Music” says the sticker on every new iPod. But is Apple being disingenuous? Because no other platform in recent history has done as much to help information (and entertainment media) to be easy to create, copy or disseminate…

“Don’t Steal Music” says the sticker on the top of every new iPod – a 5-20Gb Firewire hard-disc with built in MP3 player. But is Steve Jobs’ Apple being disingenuous? Because from the outside, their entire operation seems built around helping information to be free – every effort is being made to make software and music and imagery as easy as possible to create, copy or disseminate. And why? Because they’re in the hardware business…
Let’s go back to first principles here and quickly scout through some of Apple’s offerings. First things first – computer hardware. Apple have done a huge amount to popularise and demystify the writable CD/DVD culture, with almost all of their computers coming with either a CDR or Superdrive as standard. The functionality for such devices fulfils a double function – as a storage media for backing-up or transporting large files or as a way of printing media hard-copies – CD duplicates, home-made DVDs.
Now the software that supports it – iTunes is just an MP3 player with a few bits of fluff on it. But it is a good MP3 player, and more importantly it’s a non-proprietary, non-copyright enforcing, song-organising MP3 player. While default players on PCs use technology like Windows Media, iTunes very specifically sticks with the most popular, least controllable and most readily available form of music format. iTunes makes the process of ripping CDs incredibly simple – and that doesn’t only mean your own CDs, it means any CD you get close to. And in order to stop the use of these MP3s to be restricted to your computer (even if they might sound great with your high-quality Harman/Kardon speakers), you can also take them anywhere you want with your iPod.
iMovie and iPhoto meanwhile may not allow you to rip DVDs to your computer, but they operate on the principle that if you get digital footage onto your computer it should be as easy as possible to edit them and burn them on convenient media. Create, edit, burn, distribute.
Now to software distribution – OSX’s disk-copying software (released as standard) makes it simple to take full images of any install media you have and keep them on your computer. Or burn them to CD and give to your friends. Or put them online. Or distribute them however the hell you like.

But none of this is unique to the Mac platform or to Apple as a company. So what is it about the way that Steve Jobs operates that sets Cupertino apart?
In order to answer this you have to look at their own software offerings. From operating system through all its consumer applications, Apple actually doesn’t seem to particularly care if you pay for them or not. The vast majority (iTunes, iSync, iDVD, iMovie, Mail, iChat etc) are completely free. The odd one – like Quicktime – consists of a free element with a small upgrade cost. Some, like the software upgrade to OSX.2, seems like quite an expensive pay-for software option (�Ì90), but can easily be copied and distributed on CD-R without ever having to type in a software registration key.
It’s only at the professional end of the software market where Apple asks for money, and even then that doesn’t seem to be there only reason for selling the software. The fact that major music-software companies can be bought up by Apple – companies that then immediately stop selling the PC versions of their product – makes it clear that the financial aspect of the deal is almost secondary. They’re simply (for the most part) not interested in selling software.
And this vision extends even further to the way they write their software now – OSX.2 is based on an essentially free form of Unix, iTunes stores all its information in XML, iCal uses a publically formed standard way of holding calendar data. In every area, Apple has pushed away from proprietary software technologies and restrictions and moved towards the creativity, interdependance and freedoms of open standards. Apple has tried – wherever possible – to live by the adage that information wants to be free. It’s decided not to fight this aspect of information but instead encourage it, help it to be free. And in fact try to make it as free as possible…
The reasons for all this, of course, are that – for good or ill – at the moment copyrighted material and intellectual property are endangered and cornered beasts anyway. As yet no-one really knows the effects of this development, but I think it is clear to all concerned that (whether or not it is really happening at the moment) the gradual increase in technology, bandwidth and storage capacity provides an enormous potential for simply routing around traditional media-distribution outlets. Whether this will hurt the entertainment and software industries is as yet unclear – because as yet they mostly haven’t even tried experimenting with different types of consumer-interaction – but whether it hurts them or not, it will certainly have an impact.
In my opinion Apple sees such battles as essentially over already, and has moved in a completely different direction. Why try to sell the intellectual property itself when you can simply sell the best platform for distributing it? Why worry about software sales at all – when you can work instead on making it so that people have to buy your hardware to use it? And why consider one off payments on products when you can move towards getting people to pay for services (like .mac – the value of which is directly related to the number of free applications that gain more value when you pay your yearly fee).
Apple is one hundred percent ahead of the game here – so far ahead, in fact – that it’s completely unable to say it loud and clear. That’s why they have to keep saying again and again, “Don’t Steal Music”, when everyone knows that they’re only doing it to cover their own backs. The fact is that they know that however much money is being made through the selling of software, music and copyrighted material, the future isn’t in protecting the trade routes – it’s in making everyone a pirate