Apple and DRM, the Elephant in the Classroom

Dear Innovative Educators,

Many of you have been talking about using Apple’s amazing mobile/handheld devices like iPods and iPads in your classrooms. I’m pretty impressed that you are so willing to take your programs to such a relevant and dynamic level. There’s only one slight problem.

Let me introduce myself. My name is Digital Rights Management (my friends call me DRM); I’m the proverbial elephant in the room. I’m here to tell you that if you don’t address me, I may be the thing that stops true equitable change from being realized in our traditional classrooms.

Really smart dudes like @Doctorow have written and talked on awesome shows such as @jessebrown‘s Search Engine (listen here) expressing concerns about Apple turning the open-internet into an ‘i-controlled’ world. Other wonderful bloggers such as @rdelorenzo (“Format Wars in Mobile Space”) and @techieang (“Apps – What works? What Doesn’t?”) have alluded to the practical issues we may run into in schools. In terms of logisitics, let me tell you, there are quite a few. Not enough to legitimize those that rail for the status quo in education, but enough to occasionally keep you up at night. The main logistical piece has to do with DRM. You see, when you buy a song, app, audiobook, or iBook to use on an Apple device, there are restrictions placed upon the amount of devices/accounts you can put them on. From wikipedia:

FairPlay-encrypted audio tracks allow the following:

  • The track may be copied to any number of iPod portable music players (including the iPhone).[2] (However, each iPod/iPhone can only have tracks from a maximum of five different iTunes accounts)
  • The track may be played on up to five (originally three) authorized computers simultaneously.[2]
  • A particular playlist within iTunes containing a FairPlay-encrypted track can be copied to a CD only up to seven times (originally ten times) before the playlist must be changed.[3]
  • The track may be copied to a standard Audio CD any number of times.[3]
    • The resulting CD has no DRM and may be ripped, encoded and played back like any other CD. However, CDs created by users do not attain first sale rights and cannot be legally leased, lent, sold or distributed to others by the creator.
    • The CD audio still bears the artifacts of compression, so converting it back into a lossy format such as MP3 may aggravate the sound artifacts of encoding (see transcoding). When re-ripping such a CD one could use a lossless audio codec such as AIFF, Apple Lossless, FLAC or WAV however such files take up significantly more space than the original .mp4 files.

At this time, it appears that the restrictions mentioned above are hard-coded into QuickTime and the iTunes application, and not configurable in the protected files themselves.

Fairplay prevents iTunes customers from using the purchased music directly on any portable digital music player other than the Apple iPod, Motorola ROKR E1, Motorola SLVR, Motorola RAZR V3i, the iPhone and the iPad.

Although the blurb above speaks specifically about music tracks, rest assured similar limitations exist for apps and iBooks. So here’s the scenario I want to posit to you:

First of all, let’s assume that your school is in a demographic in which families cannot afford to purchase apps on demand, let alone a device for their child. It’s easier to lift a discussion off from this vista because, even if your school is in a high SES area, there are likely exceptions.

Now let’s assume that your parent council, school, board, or a combination of the three is committed enough to mobile learning, and has the finances, to front the bill so that its students can learn in a relevant, dynamic environment using industry-elite technology.

Even in this situation, we still have a problem in that we are forced to be creative in how we manage DRM in the building. We are pushed into thinking of ways around it (legally, of course) when there is a better and more equitable way.

Apple needs to lead the way (as they so often do) to create a fair, reasonably inexpensive way for classes and schools to purchase apps, iBooks, music, etc. from the iTunes store so that there is a school account, and when an app gets purchased you can buy a multiple-device license. I’m talking bulk purchasing here. For example, if you wanted to purchase an app like Blogpress for your students, it is currently $2.99USD for one person to own. If you need it for, say, thirty or a hundred or eight hundred kids, are you telling me we’ve got to multiply that number by the amount of kids? Hmmm, my mama always told me that you gotta haggle when you’re buying in bulk.

Or here’s a crazy idea: How ’bout DRM-free apps for schools?

Apple needs to lead the way because they’ve always lead the way. They need to lead the way because they make amazing products for education that usually far outstrip the competition. They need to take charge because,like Spiderman …

Is this too much to ask? Is there a better way? What are your thoughts?


DRA/Elephant in Room/Not Exactly School Ready



  1. You see the issue and you call for a response. Apple needs to find a way to support The Innovative Educator. If there are apps useful for classroom use, we need a way to access them for our students. Well done! I happily await Apple’s response!

  2. Thanks for the post..I never thought of how DRM implications would resonate in a classroom, having not engaged my students, yet, in ‘mobile learning’. In a family of four you don’t often hit the limit of ‘5 authorized computers’ which would pop up in the classroom.
    I have a colleague who did an Ipod touch pilot in his classroom using specific apps and there seemed to be a way of populating/sycing certain apps on all the ipod touch devices as well as certain eductional apps charged a bulk price for a certain number of devices/seats..but I’m working from memory here..
    Finally, I thought I remember reading that Fairplay had ended sometime last year…that may not change the legal implications for us as teachers though…the EULA, not the technology, would limit distribution..
    Great writing

  3. Kudos to you for bringing this up… to be honest, it’s not something I’ve really thought about!

    My class participated in the Digital Lending Program through Apple last year, but we only used the free apps so this wasn’t an issue. However as we begin to spend $$, it’s definitely something to keep in mind.

    Thanks! šŸ™‚

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