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iTunes chief blames labels for Apple removing download rivals from the iPod

By | Published on Friday 5 December 2014


Apple’s Eddy Cue yesterday basically blamed the record companies for the fact that in the first years of the iTunes Store competitors were pretty much kept out of the music download market because of the IT giant’s software.

A very long running legal squabble about the way iTunes worked in its audio DRM days has finally reached court in California. The legal complaint was first made in 2005, but the case now in court focuses on the period between 2006 and 2009. Apple is accused of continually changing its iTunes and iPod software during that period so that download stores other than Apple’s couldn’t sell music that worked on what was by that point the market leading digital music player.

The classic iPod played MP3 and AAC files, the latter of which could come with digital rights management controls embedded, though the DRM employed Apple’s proprietary FairPlay software and only iTunes was able to sell tracks encoded in this way. It meant that if labels were unwilling to sell their music as DRM-free MP3s – and at this stage all the majors were still in the midst of their love affair with pointless DRM – iPod users could only download tracks from iTunes.

iTunes rivals – most notably RealNetworks – tried to develop their own AAC-with-DRM technology, so they could sell tracks in a format the labels were happy with but which would work on iPods. But Apple kept tweaking iPod software so that those files wouldn’t play.

Indeed, often users would see tracks bought from rival download stores being deleted from their iPods whenever they did a software update (of course in these post-U2-promotion days, Apple customers probably have a nostalgic glow towards the days when the IT firm deleted tracks from devices, rather than forcing Bono’s latest tedious warbling onto them).

Apple always blamed the software updates and the removal of non-iTunes tracks from iPods on the labels, saying that the measures were necessary to fulfil its DRM and anti-piracy obligations to the major record companies. The labels occasionally countered that Apple should let its rivals access FairPlay technology.

Though in the end – as the legal dimension of this debate gained momentum – the majors finally kicked their dirty DRM habit, meaning everyone (Amazon especially) could start selling iPod-compatible MP3s, and the digital music market exploded. Though the dominance iTunes built in key markets during that era continues to this day (in the download space and, in some markets, in digital music in general).

iTunes supremo Eddy Cue, the first major Apple exec to take to the stand in the court case accusing Apple of competition law violations dating to this era of its digital music business, returned to the old arguments in his testimony yesterday.

Referring to the efforts of RealNetworks et al to sell iPod-compatible DRM-ed music files as ‘hacking’, and name-checking former Apple chief Steve Jobs (who is due to appear in the court case posthumously via a video deposition made before his death), Cue told the court, according to CNET: “Steve was mighty upset with me and the team whenever we got hacked. If a hack happened, we had to remedy that hack within a certain time period or they [the record labels] would remove all their music from the store”.

As for the labels’ argument back in the DRM days that Apple should allow third parties to use its FairPlay system, Cue denied that the IT firm deliberately vetoed such proposals to block out rivals from the rapidly growing digital music space. “We thought about licensing the DRM from the beginning”, he argued. “It was one of the things that we thought was the right move [that would] expand the market faster”.

But technical and user-experience issues prevented such a move, he went on: “We couldn’t find a way to do that and make it work reliably. Microsoft failed miserably when it tried to do this. They tried to build a DRM they could license. It would sometimes work and sometimes it didn’t”.

Blaming the labels more overtly for their DRM obsession, Cue went on: “We believed in interoperability, which was DRM-free. They [the record labels] wanted to have their cake and eat it too. They wanted to have all the interoperabilities of DRM-free but with all the protections of a DRM”.

Not that I’d ever want to stick up for the almost certainly evil Apple empire which pretty much controls my digital life, but that’s sort of how I remember that era too.

Of course, the outcome of this case won’t really have a big impact on the digital music business, given the download space has moved well beyond DRM, and the digital music market at large is starting to move being the download entirely. But if it is found liable for anti-competitive activity, Apple could face big fines, and a precedent would be set for the tech community at large about allowing competitors to piggy-back on successful software ecosystems.

The case continues.