Apple Goes to Ex-streams
It sure didn’t take long for clever programmers to screw up a good thing. Apple had scarcely opened the doors of its new online iTunes Music Store before code writers distorted the software’s Internet music-streaming feature into a budding music-stealing enterprise.
Seemingly overnight, the URLs of hundreds, if not thousands, of iTunes libraries were on the Web thanks to ShareiTunes.com, iTunesDB.com, iTunesTracker, Spymac.com, and similar Web sites. ShareiTunes.com alone claims more than 600 links to iTunes collections, with some users offering thousands of tracks culled from hundreds of albums.
Just click a link, choose some songs from a stranger’s iTunes library, and sit back as the music flows across the Internet to your Mac.
Well, not anymore. Or at least not for much longer. With the release of iTunes 4.0.1, Apple eliminated Internet streaming as one of the iApp’s niftiest features, and you can bet that the next update of OS X will drop support for the earlier version of iTunes. In an uncharacteristically personal press statement following the new release, Apple complained that streaming “has been used by some in ways that have surprised and disappointed us…some people are taking advantage of it to stream music over the Internet to people they do not even know. This was never the intent.”
And now, thanks to the short-sighted boneheads who came up with the idea of sharing iTunes playlists on the Web and the Mac users who just couldn’t leave well enough alone, a Mac user at the office can no longer tap into a music feed from her Mac at home, or innocently share a playlist with a long-distance pal. That’s a real loss to the Mac experience.
Apple calls iTunes streaming Rendezvous Music Sharing, after the OS X instant-networking feature, but don’t let the name confuse you. Streaming is not the same thing as what most of us call music sharing: the downloading of MP3 files from services such as LimeWire or the PC-only Grokster. With streaming, you listen to music fed over the Net or through your local network, but no files are copied to your hard drive. (Music bought from Apple’s iTunes Music Store is downloaded in AAC-format audio files, a format similar to MP3; only the service’s 30-second music previews are streamed.)
Remember Steve Jobs on the Macworld stage a while back, demonstrating Rendezvous by sharing iTunes libraries between a pair of wirelessly-linked Macs? That demo hinted at the streaming features which arrived this spring with iTunes 4 and Apple’s online music service: a Mac user can stream music to up to five other Macs on a home or office network and there’s almost no setup; Rendezvous knows when another Mac is in the neighborhood. It’s a terrific idea; you can tap into your iTunes library, or another one on your local network, without having to copy the music to the various Macs you own or use. Only now, it isn’t quite as terrific as it was.
The blame for the demise of Internet streaming only begins with the iTunes library linking sites, because a surprising thing happened soon after the first wave of sites arrived: most of them vanished just as quickly, and apparently without any direct threat of legal action from Apple. It appears that the site developers were horrified to find they had cleared the way for music pirates who sailed in on the second wave armed with software to capture streaming iTunes music. “I cannot, in good conscience, continue to provide a service which will facilitate the theft of copyrighted material,” said Rob Lockstone in a statement posted on his iTunesDB.com site. David Benesch, a software developer who provided Spymac.com with the know-how for its iTunes sharing service, told the IDG News Service that the arrival of pirate software was “a tragedy” that put the original “legitimate” file sharing services “in a bad light by not using iTunes as it was designed.”
A journey through the iTunes promotional materials and documentation on Apple’s Web site did not support this fanciful notion that iTunes sharing sites were ever legitimate or using iTunes as Apple intended. Apple scarcely acknowledged that Internet streaming was part of iTunes; to call the feature’s documentation “low key” would be an exaggeration. But Apple could not have be more clear that it intended network streaming, whether local or via the Internet, “for personal use only.” Sharing an iTunes library with millions of close personal friends does not qualify.
But let’s be charitable. I’m grudgingly willing to accept that Lockstone, Benesch, and other pioneers of iTunes library-linking acted in good faith, somehow believing that the law and the feel-good spirit of sharing were on their side. “It could have been great,” Benesch lamented in a statement released after the demise of Spymac’s service. “It could have been revolutionary. Stream—don’t copy.”
Software developer Steve White would not agree. He created iLeech, Mac software with one cynical mission in its deservedly short life: “iLeech will connect to an iTunes host, display their playlist, and allow you to copy the files to your local drive,” White says in a statement on the iLeech Web site.
White, who says iLeech was downloaded more than 2,100 times in the first four days it was available, is on the opposite side of the iTunes debacle from Benesch and Lockstone, but he shares their naiveté: “All I can say is ‘wow.’ In my wildest dreams I would not have imagined the reaction/attention my simple little Java/Cocoa application would receive. When I initially released it, I had honestly never imagined more than a couple of dozen people would be interested in it.”
Golly, who could have guessed that people might want to steal music? It’s hard to say who deserves a rap in the head more: those who popularized the notion that the first truly workable online music-buying service should be turned into conduit for the wholesale theft of music or the people who figured out how to do it.
More than 3 million songs were downloaded from the iTunes Music Store in its first month, which means a lot of Mac users are excited by what Apple has delivered: legal, reasonably-priced downloaded singles and albums which the user owns, the ability to listen to songs on more than one Mac, and even the right to do something that the music business has until now unyieldingly considered off limits (even if regular folks did not)—sharing of your music collection with a small circle of friends. You’d think that would be enough. You’d be wrong.
It’s almost enough to make you sympathize with the music industry.
In his online Mac Experience column the Baltimore Sun’s David Zeiler reports that even Recording Industry Association (RIAA) chairman Hilary Rosen is surprised that “given how far Apple has gone to satisfy the music fan…there is still such passion for getting around any legitimate system.” Rosen told Zeiler that the streaming of iTunes music to strangers shows that “there was always reason to be skeptical about those who have justified their theft by saying that there was no good, legitimate alternative.”
I’m no fan of the music biz. I think the major record companies take advantage of their artists through draconian contract requirements and put far too much of the blame for falling music sales on illegal copying and downloading, as if quality and high prices play no part in the equation. Not many businesses could get away with treating customers like criminals, yet the music industry isn’t shy about testing software that roams the Internet looking for suspected music pirates.
And while I don’t believe that tapping into a stranger’s iTunes library is theft unless you’re capturing the music, Rosen does have a point. Apple figured out how to sell music online even as most of the PC-centric services such as Pressplay have struggled, snubbed by PC users unimpressed with unreasonable usage restrictions, limited selection, and the music industry’s refusal to recognize the arrival of 21st century. The Mac-only iTunes Music store made it easy, if not fashionable, to be legit, yet here are Mac users still determined to find a way to get music without paying for it.
The astounding thing about music downloading and the apparently short-lived effort to steal iTunes music is that they are so disconnected from ethics. I’ve used bootlegged software and shareware I didn’t pay for, but I knew I wasn’t doing the right thing and I felt guilty about it. I’m reasonably sure I’m not alone in this. But when it comes to snagging music, people seem gleeful and guilt-free. Maybe it’s that euphemistic word “sharing.” It’s just so cuddly. I’m thinking maybe the bad guys should consider calling car-jacking “car-sharing.” They’d feel so much better about it.
Why do we have so much trouble understanding the concept of intellectual property—that most music belongs to someone? Is it so hard to see that buying a CD doesn’t confer unlimited rights to do with it as you please? It’s yours, sure. And as far as I’m concerned you can make a backup, lend the disc to a friend, or turn the songs into MP3s for your iPod. But you can’t go into the music business. You aren’t allowed to bootleg copies or upload MP3 copies of the songs, and you have no right to be on the receiving end of such a transaction, either.
Taking music you don’t own is stealing, whether you download an MP3, capture a music stream, or stuff a CD under your shirt at the music store.
There really isn’t a lot of wiggle room on this. You can speculate, as one forum user recently did, that music can’t be owned—the old “art belongs to all of us” argument. But you’ll have a lot of history and law against you on that one, along with almost everyone who creates things for a living. In fact, there’s a lot of Web trafficking in purloined artwork, too. Ask any commercial artist who has seen work he wasn’t paid for gracing a stranger’s Web site.
Or you can resort to the ersatz legal-speak which glues a veneer of phony legitimacy on the arguments of music pirates and their apologists: “Being that the ‘recipient’ has no access to the actual media file itself (but) only playback thereof,” wrote one forum user (his italics) on the subject of the iTunes sharing sites, “(this) is not ‘theft’—it’s ‘sharing.’”
Replied another: “Actually, I believe the correct legal term is ‘copyright infringement.’ The use of the word ‘theft’ is just propaganda from the record companies to make it sound more evil. There is no way that file sharing could be legally classed as ‘theft’ under current law… as it does not involve depriving anybody of material possessions.”
Actually, I believe the correct legal term is “oh, shut up.” (Aside for fans of The Simpsons: the preceding two paragraphs are even more fun if read in the voice of the Comic Book Guy.)
So who needs to be a lawyer when you can play one on the Internet? Using quasi-legal buzzwords is much more fun that admitting you’re getting something without paying for it. After all, “copyright infringement” is an abstract concept that law professors haggle over and that easy to understand word—theft—is just industry “propaganda.”
Another equivocation that pops up a lot on Web forums is the notion that putting an iTunes playlist on the Internet makes you a Webcaster. This will soon be a moot point, but it’s worth looking at because it illuminates the fractured logic that is so common in the dispute over music sharing. Sharing an iTunes playlist doesn’t make you a Webcaster because you don’t control the flow of music the way a radio station does. The listener chooses songs from your music collection which makes them the “radio programmer.” As one clear-eyed forum user put it: it’s no different from leaving a CD collection outside with a sign saying “take me.” And let’s not forget that broadcasters and Webcasters pay royalties for the music they play.
Or, as some on the forums complain, if sharing is so wrong, how do libraries get away with it? Libraries lend books because society believes it’s a good thing to share knowledge. But more to the point, the real world imposes limits on library users that don’t exist in the digital domain. Libraries don’t stream books; you borrow them. Books are cumbersome; you can’t borrow or even carry very many at a time. They take more than four minutes to read and you probably won’t read most of them more than once. And, significantly, you aren’t allowed to make copies of library books, even if you are willing to spend the time at the photocopier.
Mac-oriented online forums are overflowing with comments about the demise of Internet streaming in iTunes, and it’s no surprise that many Mac users are blaming Apple for caving in: “Apple is choosing to screw its customers and kowtow to the entertainment interests,” complains one angry forum user.
Nonsense. Apple is kowtowing to its own interests, and rightly so. The company took a bold step into its future with iTunes, and it isn’t about to be tripped up by the small group of Mac users who abused streaming. Apple is rapidly becoming a more diverse company and iTunes, the iTunes Music Store, and the iPod are at the leading edge. The coming expansion of the music store into the Windows world will be critical to the success of Apple’s strategy, and it will require the cooperation of the music industry. This is business, folks. Apple has to deal with the people who have the music and those people get nervous if they perceive that a new door to piracy has opened. It’s no coincidence that Apple’s statement on the demise of iTunes streaming also noted that “…the mechanisms we put in place to secure (the iTunes Music Store) against theft are working well…there has been no breach of this security.”
The music biz likes the iTunes Music Store and you can bet they’d like to see it work in the huge PC universe. Already, Apple has softened the industry’s previously unwavering opposition to allowing customers any control over the music they buy. People want to own their music and enjoy it with minimal restrictions, and they will find a way to do that whether or not the RIAA approves. Apple’s initial success with the iTunes Music Store suggests that most people will do the right thing when they are treated with respect.
But no matter how lenient the terms for buying and sharing, there will always be a core of miscreants that will steal music or, like the people who put links to their iTunes collections online, fail to understand that they have a responsibility to protect intellectual property. The music biz needs to come to terms with this reality. And the rest of us need to stop the coy, wink-wink excusing and enabling of such behavior. On principle, I agree with the recent federal court ruling that the music downloading site Grokster is not liable for unauthorized music sharing by its users. But don’t mistake the ruling for the court’s endorsement of illegal file sharing. And seriously, does anyone really believe that the real mission of the music sharing sites is to promote your garage band?
By the time you read this, it’s likely that hackers will have figured out how to do an end-run around the Internet streaming restrictions. Nate Mook notes on his BetaNews Web site that he’s heard of “workarounds” already under construction that will “(fool) iTunes into thinking Internet traffic is originating from a local network.” Don’t be surprised if these shenanigans bring a knock on the door (or a battering ram through it) from Apple’s legal eagles—the company is fiercely protective of its intellectual property. You could buy an whole lot of CDs for what it would cost to find out that Apple will protect its new franchise.
Sure, the iTunes Music Store is a wave of the future that might have arrived five years ago but for music industry intransigence. And how ironic that it’s from the company which not long ago inflamed the music biz with a “Rip. Mix. Burn.” ad campaign (see: “Only Nixon can go to China”).
Stop and think about iTunes for a minute. How cool is it that this great software is also the front end to the first workable online music store and the best-selling portable digital player, and that, at least for now, all three work together seamlessly only on a Mac?
Let’s not screw this up.
Next time: Whistling past the graveyard—Why Apple’s iTunes Music Store will win.
Also in This Series
- Almost Just As I Predicted, Sort Of · September 2004
- Some Offers We Are Not Needing · June 2004
- Polishing the Apple Predictions for 2004 · January 2004
- Advertising and Apple · November 2003
- California Dreamin’ · October 2003
- Mac OS X’s Quiet Little Killer Application · August 2003
- Clone Wars · July 2003
- Apple Goes to Ex-streams · June 2003
- Complete Archive