WaPo discovers the iPod music motel

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This week's WaPo "Help File" column contains a question about copying your songs off the iPod, which of course Apple won't let you do:
You can't copy those music files to your desktop or laptop using Apple's iTunes software because that program blocks iPod-to-computer song transfers. Apple sees that as an invitation to widespread copying.

But when it's your own music at stake, you shouldn't feel guilty about using third-party software. A wide variety of programs can tackle this job, but if you're using Windows, try CopyPod (www.copypod.net), which is free for 14 days and then costs $9.50. On Mac OS X, iPodRip (www.thelittleappfactory.com), $10 shareware with 10 free sessions, has many fans, but I was impressed by a free, open-source download called Senuti (wbyoung.ambitiouslemon.com). All three programs worked well, even with songs purchased from Apple's iTunes Music Store. But make sure you enable "disk use" for your iPod, which allows it to serve as an external hard drive, before using any of them.

To me, the existence of so many widely used iPod file-transfer tools is proof that Apple was wrong to thwart iPod-to-computer copying.

What's going on here, as I understand it, is that the files are all just sitting on the iPod but in a scrambled directory structure so that you can't just access them directly without special tooling. Now, I suppose I can understand why Apple won't let you copy music you bought from iTunes Music Store. But what we're talking about here is that Apple won't even let you copy the CDs you ripped yourself--the ones that were at least at one point most likely sitting on your hard drive.

I guess the threat model here is that I'm going to walk my iPod over to my friend's house and let him copy the music off it. No doubt that's a possibility but it's worth pointing out that since the iPod can also be used as a hard drive, you can simply make a duplicate copy of all your music in the partition you control. It's true that that wastes space, but given the amount of wasted storage in most people's iPods, I'm not sure how big an imposition that actually is. So, now all you've managed to do is deter (very) casual copying, at the price of inconveniencing every single iPod user. Outstanding!

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12 Comments

Of course, I never understood why people are buying proprietary shareware to solve this problem. So far, all the shareware I've seen stops working when Apple updates the layout. However, a quick:

rsync -av /Volumes/Alans\ iPod/iPod\ Control/Music ~/Documents/tmp/music

Works every time. You can then use a quick script to use the mp3 cli utilities to sort the files back into directories based on the embedded album names, etc....

True enough, they are inconveniencing their users (all of them) and preventing the naive users from doing something that they can do with just a touch of ingenuity and research.

Sigh, indeed.

What if Apple's lack of support for file export from the iPod is simply a decision not to invest in the expensive engineering work required to support it because they don't view the support as critical to the buying decision of their potential customers? Given the iPod's sales, I would say that we have extnesive supporting evidence for this theory.

It doesn't seem sinister at all to me. Especially because Apple allows a number of utilities that enable the extraction.

I'm quite confident that this is wrong.

1. The iTunes interface stops you from burning from the iPod. Since iTunes has access to the audio file at that point, it's hard to see how this could be anything other than a deliberate decision.

2. Apple doesn't really "allow" the shareware. In fact, they keep changing the layout to break the existing programs, as Alan indicates above.

3. I've spoken to at least one Apple person who told me that this was deliberate.

Apple's decision was a consequence of the RIAA lawsuit against Diamond Interactive (who made the Rio MP3 player).

Sorry, Diamond Multimedia Systems.

I think the threat in this case is rather "being perceived by our partners the entertainment industry as facilitating music swapping". It's in the same venue as the trivial AAC copy protection and the "Don't steal music" stickers.

The Register had an interesting article titled "Why Microsoft Doesn't Get It", which outlined that the Apple approach to DRM seems to be "enough so we won't be sued by content owners", which makes perfect business sense IMO.

Hmm. Thomas Themel seems to get it right. I was half expecting Eric to comment on his own post and say, "The plural of anecdote is not data." :)

Let's look at the data we do have:

1) We have empirical evidence that customers really like iPods. They're buying a lot of them.

2) The iTunes interface stops you from burning from the iPod, yet we are supposed to draw conclusions about Apple's motivations for failing to build a feature because it is not there?

3) You say Apple doesn't "allow" shareware that supports the feature, yet they are not suing or attempting to stop distribution of the shareware in any way other than by occasionally changing the file system. And the file system changes are addressed by the shareware authors in a matter of days.

4) I'm sure the Apple person who told you that the decision was deliberate had the best intentions. It's just that their story doesn't align with the company's actions. Do you think if Apple wanted to stop the spread of the shareware that they couldn't?


All of the available data doesn't match your story. The available data suggests that Apple's customers don't significantly care about the feature and Apple isn't aggressively stopping third parties from delivering the feature to the small number of users that seem to care.

What's the problem?

I think you're reading way ahead of the data, which is perfectly consistent with the following story:

1. Apple feels obligated by their interaction with the entertainment industry to make some token attempt to stop copying (as Thomas indicates).
2. In order to do (1) they deliberately don't let you copy the stuff off with iTunes and occasionally modify the file format to make third-party copying tools inconvenient.

Not only is this story consistent with the facts, it's consistent with my original post, which said that Apple deterred trivial copying at the cost of inconveniencing their users. It's also consistent with their behavior with respect to copy protection for AAC, which I think we can agree is something that costs them effort to implement and yet is fairly easily broken.

What it's not particularly consistent with is your suggestion that Apple didn't implement the feature because it would somehow have cost them significant amounts of engineering time to do so, for reasons that I indicated in my original followup to you.

My wife has an enormous amount of music on her iPod, and when a friend wanted to get a music collection started, we got one of the shareware utilities (I put it on the iPod disk) and took my wife's iPod over there and downloaded them all to the friend. I guess we're pretty much the exception, though. Apparently nobody else does this.

Eric,

Apple could have implemented technology that allowed users to copy music off of their iPods. They could have used some crazy half-hearted copy protection scheme to limit its usefulness, just like AAC. They can still do this. But it's distracting work to build and support.

So if their customers actually demanded the feature, they might build it. But Apple continues to sell iPods as fast as they can make them, so why should they do anything that might threaten their margins?

Once again with the claim that it would somehow be some effort to uncripple a feature they already have. I repeat: iTunes already lets you manage music that is NOT on the iPod. They clearly had to go to special effort to make this not work for the iPod.

As for the rest of your argument: sure, Apple clearly can sell lots of iPods because apparently the iPod is good enough to make up for being screwed in this minor way.

You seem to be stating that allowing users to manage music on the iPod is supposedly a free feature.

Any good product manager, software development manager or testing manager will support my claim that no feature in a software package is free.

There is a customer service cost to enabling features. And there is an engineering cost in terms of time to investigate, fix bugs, document, localize, etc.

What's more troubling about your particular argument is that it ignores the market outcome. Customers have the choice between portable music players that support easy extracting of music from the players and those that don't. They overwhelmingly choose players that don't support the feature.

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