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What if Apple stopped issuing DRM keys?

Sure, it's highly unlikely now, but what about 5 or 10 years from now? The fact is, consumers of DRM-laden music are at the mercy of whoever holds their encryption keys.

It happened to Microsoft and Yahoo. Could it happen to Apple?

The limitations of antipiracy software were dramatically illustrated last week when Yahoo Music announced the company would stop issuing authorization keys for the software that prevents its songs from being copied.

Microsoft's now defunct MSN Music service made a similar announcement last spring. Some CNET News readers have asked whether the same thing could happen at iTunes. The answer to that question is yes, it most certainly could.

If Apple ever stopped issuing keys for its FairPlay digital rights management then, just like at Yahoo and MSN, iTunes users would be prevented from moving their music to different machines or devices. That would affect most of the 5 billion songs the company has sold. (Following much public criticism, Microsoft said it would continue issuing keys for another three years and Yahoo is offering refunds.)

To be sure, the likelihood of Apple shutting off DRM keys anytime in the foreseeable future seems remote at best. Apple is the Internet's largest music retailer and may be the largest music retailer overall. The company is riding a wave of excitement over the new iPhone 3G, which besides being a phone and Internet-enabled device, is an excellent music player. Apple appears to be on track to dominate retail music sales for a long time to come.

Still, things do change. Who can say what will happen at Apple in 5 or 10 years? That's a long time from now. But the truth is, DRM's threat to iTunes users' music libraries is real.

If, for some reason, Apple stopped issuing new DRM keys, people's music would get stuck. Check out iTunes' terms of service. The company says that in such a scenario, customers could not hold it responsible: "In the event that Apple changes any part of the Service or discontinues the Service, which Apple may do at its election, you acknowledge that you may no longer be able to use products to the same extent...and that Apple shall have no liability to you."

What the Yahoo and MSN situations show is that DRM-wrapped music is never truly controlled by anyone other than whoever holds the encryption key. Whether it's FairPlay or Windows Media DRM or some other format, consumers are at their mercy when it comes to unlocking their music.

This means that music libraries can be threatened when computers go kaput. (Yes, the workaround is to burn the music to CDs, but then some sound quality is lost.)

While it may seem inconceivable, it's worth looking at what would happen if Apple stopped issuing keys. How would the company compensate customers for 1 billion lost songs?

MSN Music announced in April that it would no longer support the DRM keys on its music. Customers could still play and hear their songs but would be prevented from transferring them to other devices. Two months later, following public condemnation, Microsoft said it would continue to issue DRM keys for three more years.

On Friday, Yahoo Music said it would begin offering refunds to customers who purchased songs from Yahoo Music Unlimited. For people who would rather have DRM-free copies of their songs, Yahoo is also looking into whether it can provide unprotected MP3s.

The problem with Microsoft's approach is that it is only a short-term solution. In three years time, Microsoft could once again opt to end DRM support. And if Apple followed Yahoo's refund policy, it could prove to be mighty expensive.

Apple conceivably could strip DRM from its songs. From a technological standpoint, it wouldn't be hard to do. If Apple ever stopped issuing keys, the company could, in theory, work out a deal with the labels that would allow it to remove FairPlay. It's unclear whether Microsoft or Yahoo tried to negotiate similar agreements with the labels.

Software packages such as PlayFair and QTFairUse already do this.

The real hurdle would likely be the labels. Right now, EMI is the only one of the four largest recording companies selling unprotected song files on iTunes. Apple's agreements with the other three labels require it to offer copy-protected music.

This brings us to a question that has long been asked: At a time when more and more of Apple's competitors are offering DRM-free music, why does Apple continue to sell songs with antipiracy protections?

Who's to blame?
Apple's Steve Jobs says he wants to sell unprotected music. The recording labels have said Apple is at fault. With everyone pointing fingers at each other, the only thing that's clear is DRM has been exposed.

"It is the consumers' responsibility to protect their investments. You have a volatile store sitting on a hard drive."
--Guy Tennant, COO, Entriq

Yahoo and MSN have helped show that consumers of DRM-wrapped music play their songs only with permission of anyone trading in copy protections, and that includes Apple.

Guy Tennant, chief operating officer of Entriq, a company that helps online stores manage publishing, packaging, and protection of digital products--and this includes implementing DRM--says limitations with copy protections shouldn't come as a surprise. "You got what you paid for," Tennant said. "It is the consumers' responsibility to protect their investments. You have a volatile store sitting on a hard drive."

Tennant says he doesn't want to sound unsympathetic but reminds digital-music buyers that CD owners don't demand a refund from stores when they lose their discs. As for backing up songs to a CD, people should just accept the loss of quality because the only other alternative is to lose the music entirely, he said.

"The challenge for DRM technology providers is to create technology that is easy to use and fits consumers' perception of fair use," he said.