I remember the launch of iTunes in 2001. Hurrying home from the MacWorld conference in San Francisco, downloading the app, making a stack of CDs next to my Powerbook, ripping them as fast as my machine would go. Rip, Mix, Burn, baby!
The other thing I remember is how the media industry viewed iTunes: they hated it. They hated people using iTunes to rip CDs , they hated mixing and burning. The only reason they let the iPod/iTunes ecosystem live was because when they sued the company that made the first MP3 players, they lost .
The record companies thought that anything that let listeners do more with their music had to be illegal. After all, they had big plans for the future of music and those plans hinged on being able to control how you and I used our music. They’d made big money selling cassettes to LP owners, and CDs to cassette owners, and they viewed selling digital versions of those same songs to us as their inalienable right. If we could rip our own CDs, how would they sell us that music again?
Luckily for us and for Apple, a company’s preferences don’t have the force of law. The record companies could gripe, but they couldn’t stop iTunes.
Not until now, anyway.
Apple is a member of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a body currently working to make a standard for restricting Web users’ options while they view copyrighted works. This standard, Encrypted Media Extensions (EME), allows media companies to restrict the use of copyrighted works without regard to the limits of copyright law. Copyright lets you do all kinds of things with the works you lawfully access: record them to experience later, move them to a different device, pause them so you can get a snack or change a diaper.
EME would give giant media companies a veto over your use of your media–a veto that would have killed iTunes before it ever got started.
Worse: EME could let its creators invoke section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which prohibits you from getting around EME-style restrictions on copyrighted works. According to some U.S. courts, the law applies even if you’re circumventing for a purpose allowed under copyright law. Even if you’re making iTunes.
DMCA 1201 is so sloppily drafted and far-reaching that it even lets companies legally threaten security researchers who discover serious, dangerous bugs in products if they come forward with embarrassing news.
(And if you’re not an American: the US trade representative is working hard to make DMCA-style laws a condition of trading with the USA, spreading them to every corner of the Earth.)
The Electronic Frontier Foundation asked the W3C not to do this . When they went ahead anyway, we asked them to compromise : at least ask your members to promise not to use the DMCA to attack new companies and researchers doing lawful things. Make them promise to let the next iTunes get a chance. After all, this is what the W3C did when it came to patents: to participate in the W3C’s process, you must agree that people are allowed to implement its standards without worrying about undisclosed patents you may own. This safeguard has helped enable an enormous turnover in popular browsers over the past decade.
Despite hearing from a diverse coalition of its members who approved of the EFF compromise, the W3C overruled them , and is letting EME continue without a legal safeguard for the products that don’t exist yet, for the companies that haven’t had their iTunes moment yet.
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The W3C has a long, proud history of standing up for the open Web, the Web anyone can make. It should honor its history and continue to protect the open Web and the innovators and researchers who make it great.