There’s an “Apple is stealing your music” blog post going around on Facebook today, and people are freaking out in that “we’re freaking out about this” way that they do, and as someone who talked about this when Apple Music rolled out, I have to step in and say some things.

First: This is Apple Music, which is to say, Apple’s stream-everywhere service. Think of Pandora, but also streaming your ripped CDs and so on. This is not core iTunes functionality (tho’ it is delivered from within iTunes if you enable it), this is not your iPhone, or iPod, or whatever. You have to sign up for this and pay for it. It’s $10/month.

Second: Here’s the thing. I don’t like Apple Music and don’t use it, for several reasons, one of which being this one. I am not an Apple Music fangirl defending my platform here, I don’t like it or use it.


The whole pitch of Apple Music, the whole point of it, is to make “your” music available to you everywhere, as well as give you access to Apple’s very large streaming library service.

I use quotes around “your” up there, for very good reason. You don’t own most of your music. You just don’t. See this four year old but still relevant commentary on so-called ownership of music for details. What you own are limited rights to music.

This means that Apple cannot legally upload your specific copies of licensed songs to their servers without paying the RIAA buttloads of money – far, far more than your monthly Apple Music membership fee. Cannot, as in, it’s illegal. The only way they can offer this service is to have a licensing scheme set up, which pretty much means the reference-library approach they’re taking.

Now, they can upload stuff that is actually yours, with your permission. And they’re doing that, according to this article. (And other sources, for that matter.) They have to do that, in order to share it around; that’s kind of implicit with the service.

But they’re probably not going to store uncompressed WAVs. They’re huge. Your phone’s data plan will be hammered if they stream WAV files. Everybody and their mother would rage about that, and for good reason, and the mobile market is most of the reason to have this at all. So, for these very good reasons, they’re going to compress.

(Now, they might upload a WAV and then stream you down AACs – disk space is cheap – and I don’t know what they do internally. But let’s assume they’re not. Given it’s Apple, I don’t know what format they’d use on their servers, but it’d probably be some very-low-loss AAC variant, which is very good. But that’s kind of a side question that I bring up only because the “Apple is stealing your music” post author brought it up, as well.)

Now, once they’ve set up the service, with your library’s use rights transferred to the cloud, they will treat all devices as peers, and make them all into echos of the central cloud copy. That’s the clean way to do it; it’s the elegant, least-hacky way. Their architecture is based around the idea that the “primary” machine is their set of servers, and all other devices are thin / empty / stream-on-demand clients. This lets them do really good backups, and provide all the similar cloud-centric services which really are the point of that whole system.

But that means setting all the client environments to be the same and reflect the server, and that’s why it’s set up as it is. (There also may be multiple-copy licensing issues? The RIAA would certainly insist that there are, and this avoids that fight.) All the (thin) clients are in the same state, so all the information is common across all of them, status is always synced, etc. Which means that the local library echos have to match what the server thinks they should be, and there’s no room for exceptions.

It doesn’t have to be that way. They could have – and, to my mind, should have set up exemption rules to avoid exactly this problem. (eta: and at some point after version one in fact did – see below!) And they chose not to (at initial release), because it makes the implementation a lot less elegant if you do that, and/or because the cases where that’s actually an issue are a tiny slice on the edge of their market, and/or because the support costs would’ve been higher, and that’s both inevitable and expensive.

Which of those factors was more important, I can’t begin to guess. I’ve known a lot of managers from Microsoft who would’ve made the same call, and I’d’ve been screaming at them, and probably would’ve lost that fight. Or who knows, maybe I wouldn’t’ve. I don’t know.

What I do know is that the edge-case argument is demonstrably valid. Apple Music has been around nine months. A bunch of us complained about the architecture when it came out; now silence, until this. That’s one new high-visibility blog post about it in three-quarters of a year, which averages out to 1.33 persons angry enough to get it attention about it again, per year.

That’s a pretty small number, particularly given it’s out of 13 million subscribers or so. I may be part of that edge case, but that doesn’t stop it from being an edge case.

Still, ignoring that edge case – and completely blowing up the “least surprise” principle of user experience management – that’s where this was a terrible, nearly Microsoftian design decision. Giving each device the possibility of having a list of first-copy/exempted/whatever songs is, as above, a real technical and support problem. But they could’ve solved it, should’ve solved it, and decided not to.

And that was terrible and leads directly here, and is why I don’t use Apple Music.

But they aren’t “stealing your music.” For the overwhelming majority of users, you already don’t “own” it, you just have transferrable rights. And if Apple wants to offer the service they’re offering, they’re kind of stuck under current copyright law. They just are.

(They could also just back up your old library. But since edge-case people in particular will still add new non-library songs to their personal library while subscribed that means you have to sync the backup as well – yay, more code to maintain! More support to do! – or otherwise, when they quit Apple Music, HEY SOME OF MY SONGS ARE GONE APPLE DESTROYED MY MUSIC!! and we’re right back here.)

The only place I see an even remotely-possible legal issue is that I think they should auto-download all your licensed and owned music without having to go through by hand (as the guy describes in his article as something he doesn’t want to do) when you drop Apple Music. That’s arduous enough that I think you can make a restraint case out of it – particularly for the non-library/actually-owned-by-the-user parts of the library, that edge case that he has and I have and so on.

But the rest of it – the licensed material, meaning all the ‘purchased’ music, none of which you are ever actually purchasing, even if you buy it in physical form – that’s most likely legally solid, and the ground rules are dictated pretty heavily by the RIAA.

Who are monsters. But that’s a whole ‘nother series of articles.
eta: Hey, turns out, Apple Music even tries to tell you what it’s about to do and lets you opt out will still using the service for the rest of your library, which means I’m wrong, they do in fact build the exemption list I described above now, which they didn’t in version one. Maybe that was in response to our round of complaints last year! But the wording – while correct – is confusing to many people, like this guy. (And to be fair, it really kinda is.)
eta2: From another source, the uploads of your local files are made as 256Kbps AAC.

This is a related entry in the Music in the Post Scarcity Environment series of articles about the music industry, and trying to make it as an indie musician in the modern environment.