How Apple’s FairPlay DRM works

“Understanding how Apple’s FairPlay DRM works helps to answer a lot of questions: why it hasn’t been replaced with an open, interoperable DRM that anyone can use, why Apple isn’t broadly licensing FairPlay, and why the company hasn’t jumped to add DRM-free content from indie artists to iTunes,” Daniel Eran writes for RoughlyDrafted.

“Why can’t the music industry just adopt an open standard for DRM? The simple answer is that the basic concept of interoperable DRM makes no sense,” Eran writes.

“Since the point of DRM is to limit interoperability by using secrets, there is no open way to deliver a DRM system that does what it’s supposed to do. If it were open, then it wouldn’t be secret. When the secrets get out, it’s now open, but it no longer works as DRM,” Eran writes. “If that logic isn’t too difficult to fathom, here’s another wrinkle to complicate things: the industry has already adopted interoperable frameworks for DRM. One is the MPEG-4 AAC standard, which is used by Apple in iTunes.”

Eran writes, “The earlier MP3 file format had no provision for DRM. However, the newer AAC format was designed with an open mechanism for companies to extend the format using their own DRM implementation. That’s as open as DRM can possibly get: an agreed upon system for putting secrets in a specific place. It’s still a secret, but it’s at least a known unknown. While anyone can access and play a standard AAC file, to use a DRM-protected AAC file they need to know the secret to decoding that particular file.”

Much, much, much more in the full article here.

Related article:
Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ posts rare open letter: ‘Thoughts on Music’ – calls for DRM-free music – February 06, 2007


  1. Irrespective of your viewpoint of the merits of DRM, DRM is currently with us and a reality. What I find amazing is that no other party has come along and invested the money to develop their own DRM solution. Are you honestly telling me that the big record companies or the RIAA couldn’t hire some tech company to develop their own Fairplay system which they could license how they see fit? I’m not saying it would work any better than PlaysForSure has but they could do it and they would control it – which is what they want. Instead their preferred solution is to saddle themselves with Microsoft’s solution whilst moaning about the one system which kinda restricts stuff like they want and actually sells.

  2. hey mxnt41, SHHHHHH!!

    I am fine with Fairplay. Sure it is DRM, but if you have a problem with it, burn then re-rip. DRM gone. And dont give me that “sound quality sux when you do that” bull crap. It sounds perfectly fine.

  3. “And dont give me that “sound quality sux when you do that” bull crap. It sounds perfectly fine.”

    I agree. And besides, people are so deaf now from using their iPods set on 11 that the quality isn’t going to matter anyway.

  4. Well, the sound quality isn’t that great before you remove the DRM, so I suppose if you don’t mind poor quality to begin with, then you won’t mind poor quality without DRM either. Additionally, there are other technology groups that have invested in creating an interoperable DRM system. Although, I do agree that if the record labels insist on an open DRM format, they should take the initiative to create it. Likewise, I also believe that a DRM-free (music) world is a possibility and something worth fighting for.

  5. Its so lovely – one myth followed immediately by another, [@fatal, @Moo]

    Regarding DRM, what I’ve learned over the last few months:
    1. Its up to the recording industry to stop requiring online resellers to use DRM.
    2. Apple doesn’t want DRM any more than anyone else, they’re just complying in order to legally carry on with their business.
    3. As the first post indicates, why doesn’t the “industry” take responsibility for creating the DRM (Just make sure MS has a court ordered no-access order)
    4. If we’re going to have to live with DRM for the time being, its clear by now that AAC is working.
    5. The music industry has got some hard choices to make, and no matter how much they blame Apple, or any music delivery system, the final solution is clearly in their court.
    6. If the music industry doesn’t make these decisions very soon, simple economic loses will inevitably make the decision for them.

  6. Apple needs to get the word out that AAC is an open source format designated to replace mp3. When a friend of mine who knows A LOT about computers and is a former Mac user tells me that AAC is Apple’s proprietary format (he didn’t know about Fairplay), Apple has a lot of work to do!

  7. Wow! What a well thought out article. I’ve often wondered why Apple didn’t sell nonDRM tracks from indie artists like eMusic does. I attributed it to Apple’s typical ease of use. Who wants to have to think about “does this have DRM or doesn’t it” before they purchase. You want a song you click you buy. Simple.

    Seeing how much actual work and risk that would be required to make nonDRM content available makes it a no-brainer. The problems far outweigh the benefits. It’s a business after all and adding nonDRM makes no business sense.

    Seriously though, how many people have issues with FairPlay? Isn’t 5 devices enough? I’ve authorized 2 computers and an iPod and I still have two more devices to go…what’s the big deal? How many places does it need to be? Can the majority of people even really hear the difference when you burn your tracks to CD to strip away the DRM?

  8. “Are you honestly telling me that the big record companies or the RIAA couldn’t hire some tech company to develop their own Fairplay system which they could license how they see fit? “

    Yes, they could. They have, in fact, tried this with disasterous results. Why? Because the major labels are greedy. There was an effort to come up with a standard in the late 90’s that predictably fell apart. The result was that when companies opened their own download stores at ridiculous prices, the DRM was draconian. Some limited you to one particular PC. So, yes. But they could and did have their own download stores.

    “And dont give me that “sound quality sux when you do that” bull crap. It sounds perfectly fine.”

    Sure, if you are listening through Apple earbuds, this does not noticeably affect the sound. Same for computer speakers. However, the issue here is why the hell should I have to lose sound quality at all?

    “what’s the big deal?”

    Thank you for the anecdotal evidence. There are people that have several computers, particularly when you keep all your Apple computers running even after buying a new one.

    “Seeing how much actual work and risk that would be required to make nonDRM content available makes it a no-brainer.”

    What is “it”? Here’s an idea; get rid of all DRM! That is a fucking no-brainer.

    Let’s see: you can already strip DRM easily. There are plenty of sites that sell DRM-free tracks for download. CDs (thankfully) do not have DRM and can be ripped. So, somehow, having 10% of music sold be without DRM is some huge hazard to the music industry? That is silly.

  9. To realist:

    Judging from the way you write, the most likely reason for your sound-quality problem is a psychological one. You only hear the unsatisfactory quality when you know the encoding. In a double-blind test you would not be able to tell a directly played trumpet from an Apple AAC recording of the same music.

    Get yourself tested. Just the testing could cure you.

    Another possibility is that your problem stems from low-quality (not necessarily cheap!) sound equipment. Music played on low-quality equipment will never sound good, independent of the encoding algorithm.

    I know enough physics and neurology and have performed enough perception testing on people to know what I am talking about.

  10. An issue (if not THE issue) for the labels and DRM is that they want to “control” it, but they don’t want the “responsibility” for it. They want a third party (Apple, MS, someone) to have “responsibility” for it.

    By “responsibility,” I mean in the sense of the responsibility for the financial investment necessary to the R&D of DRM, for the financial investments necessary to keep it functioning across diverse electronics platforms and devices, and for any and all additional financial investments necessary for additional R&D to repair hacks.

    And by “investments” I don’t mean in the sense that there is any chance of a financial return for the party doing the “investment”, but in the sense of the party being financially obligated to deal with all these “responsibilities.”

    Apple could give FairPlay to the music industry and I’d bet almost anything they would refuse it, unless Apple remained responsible for it.

  11. No matter how lousy the encoding, when listened using the Bose QuiteComfort headsets, the quality is incredible.

    Try them for yourselves, the next time you fly, connect your headphones (even if they are the Apple ones) to their audio system listen for 10 seconds and then change over to the Bose headset…wow, wow, WOW!

  12. Even if Apple was allowed to sell DRM free tracks, iTunes would still only sync with iPods and the Motorola phones and any device that it currently syncs with.

    It would only mean that if you were stupid enough to buy something other than an iTunes+iPod device, you’ll be able to put the songs on it some other way, but not via iTunes.

    Apple would be stupid to allow any and every device to be synced via iTunes. Keep it iTunes & iPod and Apple keeps the user experience going great, and the of course the revenue stream continues.

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