Growing Pains for Digital Media

2008 ended with a bang for digital media: growing audiences for streaming long-form video, several deals bringing ebooks to the iPhone, and rumors that Apple and the Big Three music labels were hashing out a deal to complete the removal of digital rights management (DRM) from the music on iTunes that begin with EMI.

That agreement was reached and on Tuesday at their final Macworld appearance Apple announced that the music offered on iTunes will soon be DRM-free. However, some commentators are criticizing the fees to consumers to unlock the DRM for music they already purchased (30 cents for individual songs and 30% for albums.) Despite the arrival of legal and unlocked music, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) points out that other digital media is still wrapped in DRM.

Convincing consumers to pay for these dubious upgrades as well as the continued presence of DRM elsewhere are signs that the transition from traditional to purely digital media, albeit rapid, will not be easy. Another sign of these growing pains is the sudden disappearance from Apple iTunes App Store of ebooks using ScrollMotion‘s Iceberg platform. Launched in December with bestselling books like “Twilight” and “The Golden Compass”, the response among consumers and bloggers varied from excitement to disappointment at the price and the “one app equals one ebook” lack of management that can leave your iPhone desktop cluttered. It is unclear why these ebooks no longer appear on the App Store; I emailed the company with a request for comment. With music, a variety of platforms came and went, sometimes taking the purchased music with them and forcing consumers to buy the same content again and again. In these early days of widening support for ebooks by the major book publishers similar trends may prevail.

More digital media content across multiplying platforms combined with the ongoing formation of consumer preferences will continue to result in both exciting developments and disappointing frictions. As yet another example, online video viewing grew 34 percent between November 2007 and November 2008 according to comScore, but the movie and television digital download industry has yet to settle on a standard format that would work across devices from various vendors.

Consumers are flocking to the net for their media consumption. Eventually the standardization of formats, the dropping of DRM, and the ascent of online digital media retailers to become the top sellers of content will follow from music to video, games, books, and all other media. Until then, or until all media and all devices are tied into some future iteration of the Cloud that abstracts formats away from consumer awareness, these growing pains will continue.

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Richard Leis

Richard Leis is a writer and poet living in Tucson, Arizona. His poetry has been published in Impossible Archetype. His essays about fairy tales and technology have been published on Tiny Donkey and Fairy Tale Review’s “Fairy-Tale Files“.