Late last week, I was inspired to write a Declaration of InDRMpendence (declaring my freedom from Digital Restrictions Management [DRM] technology) by my good friend who mistakenly recommended Sonos' wireless-mesh based whole home audio system. He was certain that it could play all of the songs he's purchased through iTunes as long as he hooked on Sonos device to one of the PCs in his house running iTunes.
"Jim" was about to drop $500 per room to set up his house until I found one line on a page on Sonos' Web site that's the perfect proof point of all that is wrong with DRM technology. Sonos' gear won't work with certain types of "DRMed" music. Not from the iTunes music store. Not from from any of the Microsoft-authorized PlaysForSure music stores. It will work with RealNetworks' Rhapsody service (yet another DRM technology that's incompatible with the others and is only compatible with certain devices). But to playback music that has been DRMed with either Apple or Microsoft's DRM technologies (the two 800 lb DRM gorillas), innovative companies like Sonos must re-engineer their products to support those technologies. But before they can do that, Apple and Microsoft must first agree to license their DRM technologies to Sonos, and then, Sonos must pay those companies a DRM tax for the privilege of letting its customers play music from their online music stores. For example, Microsoft has a page on its Web site that spells out the per unit and annual fee licensing options for its DRM technology. My Declaration found its way to Sonos' executives and here's the response I got:
Many thanks for including us in your recent blog post titled "Declaration of InDRMpendence."
For the sake of clarity on our end, you have nailed our position with Apple's "FairPlay". Currently, Microsoft's "PlayForSure" technology doesn't support multi-room listening. The DRM is designed for "single zone" listening environments such as portable players, a computer, or a burned CD. Microsoft has assured us that they will be designing the next rendition of "PlayForSure" to be compatible with multi-room listening. When they do, we will add support for it immediately.
Thanks for your time sir.
Thomas L. Meyer
Manager, Public Relations
Thank you Mr. Meyer for coming forward.
First of all, if I haven't been clear already about my position on DRM, then here's a reminder. On it's current path, particularly with the way Congress is involved, DRM is a train wreck. I believe that copyright holders are entitled to get paid for their content if that's their business model. However, the DRM technology that's being used to enforce that payment has gone too far. Not only is it being used to unfairly restrict our rights to the content that we'd otherwise have legal access to, it's being used as a market control point that stifles innovation and that could foreclose on competitors. For example, why must Sonos wait for a willing licensor of DRM technology to fix the specification to support its multi-room architecture -- an architecture that's clearly within the rights of Sonos' customers to use with the music they've legally acquired.
If we must have DRM, then its application must be rethought and there should be a single open standard for it that everyone complies with. If such an open standard existed and everyone complied with it, not only would Sonos be free to contribute code to that specification to make it work with its architecture today, it wouldn't have to pay a tax to anyone to implement that standard, nor would Sonos customers be restricted to a la carte buying of their music from one type of music store (as they will be when and if Sonos does get to support PlaysForSure). The conditions under which Sonos and other entertainment gear manufacturers are being forced to operate are dangerously monopolistic.
[Update: Jim has purchased the Sonos setup anyway. He loves it. He's also ponying up to subscribe to Rhapsody's subscription service which is a lot like Yahoo's in that it offers access to an unlimited number of songs. But as soon as you stop subscribing, you lose access to the music. He says it's like living in a radio station. But, when I asked about using that DRMed music in other places and on other devices, he said "Yeah, that's a problem. So, if I come across something I really like, I'll just buy the CD." In other words, pay twice for the music. One problem: DRM is already here for CDs too.]