13 June, 2011

iTunes Match - Music Laundering With A Twist

Recently Apple announced their new iCloud service, with the music matching service called iTunes Match, which costs $25 a year. It's cloud storage for your songs. However, the idea is not to upload all your songs up there, but to see if some of them already exist on Apple's iTunes servers, so that they can be matched and replaced by the ones already in the cloud. So then later, you can download the matching songs (actually in 256kbps AAC format) to your devices.

Following this announcement many people, including some of the labels, pointed out that this could then work as some sort of music laundering service. Since you could have pirated songs that would get matched by iTunes and then "laundered" and eventually downloaded back to you as "clean" copies.

My first question is, why would a pirate bother paying for this cleaning, what would he/she gain? Since, as we know, they catch pirates pretty much exclusively through p2p activity (when uploading songs to other users). So, whether the songs you already have on your device are "dirty" or "clean" doesn't make much difference.

So then how do "clean" (iTunes Match) songs even differ from the "dirty" ones? In two ways:
1. The songs are bit per bit different from the ones commonly found on p2p.
2. You paid $25 to Apple for them.

The first one is, as I've already hinted at, of marginal importance and I only mention it because I don't like leaving technical details out. Once this service rolls out and gains a significant amount of users (especially the "pirating kind") it will actually make this point moot, since the p2p networks will have lots of songs originating from iTunes Match anyway, which means they will no longer be bit per bit different from p2p ones.

The second one is more interesting. It still doesn't provide any proof of "cleaning" for the end user, but it helps in explaining the general situation. Apple uses that money not only for hosting and bandwidth expenses, but gives 70% of those $25 to the publishers and record labels. Not only that, but to make this service possible, it's been said that Apple paid up to $150 million to the big labels. For what exactly? Well, I guess for the absence of complaining about something that should be allowed with a minimum amount of common sense (aka downloading songs you already own). Google supposedly tried something similar last year.

Does this sound a bit silly to you too?
But that's how some of the labels and distributors work. In the market where they perceive that they're losing huge amounts of money to piracy, they'll do anything to extort some from paying customers, from whichever music related service they can get involved with. Kinda similar to how, in many places, you pay a "piracy tax" for blank CDs, even if you then use them for legitimate purposes. Some people like to parade on the righteousness horse when hunting down pirates and suing them for outrageous sums. Now, they once again showed that pretty much the only thing they actually care about is getting paid, while making sure that common sense and technology don't get in the way.

But eventually content distributors and the big labels are just being smart businessmen, playing on what's the current state of the market and technology. The ball is with competitors to provide something more attractive and it's on consumers to pay for what they value. 

So we can conclude that:
  • there is no actual laundering going on
  • you're simply paying for a (Apple-centric) cloud storage service
  • you can still get caught if you distribute music
  • some content owners will still try to get paid in any way they can