By Ellen Lee
Apple Inc. CEO , Steve Jobs on Tuesday called on the record industry to dump copyright-protection technology, saying that it has yet to stop people from sharing and downloading songs off the Internet.
Jobs, outlining his vision in an essay called "Thoughts on Music," published on Apple's Web site, said the music industry must radically evolve toward a market in which people can easily use any online music service, even if music companies have to remove the technology that protects their copyrights.
If music companies were to get rid of that technology -- commonly called digital-rights management, or DRM -- users would be able to buy and download songs from Apple's iTunes online store and play them on any portable music player, not just Apple's iPod.
The iTunes Store has sold more than 2 billion songs, even surpassing Amazon.com in music sales. Because of anti-piracy technology, songs purchased from iTunes play only on the iPod, while songs purchased from other online music services, such as Rhapsody and Yahoo, do not.
Jobs' provocative statement comes as the music industry is slammed by plummeting CD sales and music piracy. At the same time, European government officials and some U.S. music fans have been pressuring Apple to make the iTunes store accessible to non-iPod players.
"Imagine a world where ... any player can play music purchased from any store, and any store can sell music which is playable on all players," Jobs wrote. "This is clearly the best alternative for consumers, and Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat."
Record labels stand to benefit from abandoning DRM technology, Jobs said.
"The music industry might experience an influx of new companies willing to invest in innovative new stores and players," he wrote. "This can only be seen as a positive by the music companies."
Some record companies have experimented with releasing DRM-free music -- such as a recent Norah Jones track through Yahoo Music. But it's far from clear that the music industry is ready to embrace Jobs' proposal wholeheartedly. Many in the industry are convinced that anti-piracy software is necessary to protect music sales.
Instead, the music industry wants Apple to cooperate with other music services and players by, for example, licensing its copyright-protection technology to competitors. Apple has resisted, contending such a move could make its service vulnerable to technical problems.
"Would we like to see more interoperability? Absolutely," said a music industry executive who asked to remain anonymous. But just because it's hard for technology companies to find common ground on digital-rights management doesn't mean they should throw out the technology.
It's "different from saying, 'It's a difficult problem. Let's give up on it,' " the executive said.
If iTunes sales are any indication, people don't appear to object to copyright-protection technology, the executive said.
"There seems to be this presumption that if DRM went away, that sales would skyrocket," the executive said. "We just don't believe that to be the case."
Jobs calculated that only 22 out of 1,000 songs on a typical iPod, or less than 3 percent, are purchased from iTunes. The rest come from CDs, which do not contain DRM.
"I don't think Steve Jobs would stick his neck out on this point if he didn't believe the music labels will come around," said Chris Castle, a music and technology lawyer who represented peer-to-peer network Napster. "The industry has been moving toward this for a while. This could be the year that it starts to take hold."