The DRM nightmare: Not only does it get worse, it recurs

Summary:Judging by my email, the number of Talkbacks, and our traffic reports, my story about how my $20,000 worth of audiophile gear can't play the 99 cent songs that I buy la carte struck a chord with a lot of people.

Judging by my email, the number of Talkbacks, and our traffic reports, my story about how my $20,000 worth of audiophile gear can't play the 99 cent songs that I buy la carte struck a chord with a lot of people.  As more people turn into consumers of digital entertainment -- particularly audio (but video as well) -- they're also beginning to discover the downside of the digital rights management (DRM) technology that invariably comes with it: a technology that forces them to own or buy specific products. 

For example, if you're a customer of Apple's iTunes digital music store, you will eventually reach that point of no return where you're basically committed for life to Apple's DRM scheme known as Fairplay. What this means is that you've contributed to ensuring Apple's legacy because the only digital music players that will play the music you've purchased are the ones that include Apple's Fairplay -- a technology that Apple not only controls, but licenses to third parties on a very selective basis.  Today, outside of Apple's iPods and its Windows and Mac-compatible iTunes software, the recently announced iTunes-compatible Motorola Rokr phone is the only non-Apple product I know of that's capable of playing iTunes store-bought songs. 

Apple isn't the only company whose legacy you can secure.  An alternative -- part of something called the PlaysForSure program -- comes from Microsoft.  Much the same way you can buy music from Apple's iTunes store that requires Apple's playback technology, you can buy music from other stores that requires Microsoft DRM technology and it can only be played back with products from vendors that have licensed that technology for Microsoft.  For example, as can be seen from this page on Yahoo!'s Music Engine site:

...you must have the correct device. The Yahoo! Music Unlimited service utilizes Windows Media DRM (digital right management), which requires you to use a subscription-compatible Windows Media device if you want to take subscription music to go.

Given that Microsoft is aggressively licensing it's playback technology, similar language can be found on other online music stores like Napster To Go and F.Y.E.'s download store (the latter of which can't even be accessed without Microsoft's Internet Explorer).  In fact, thanks to the crackdown on file-sharing services like the old Napster and Kazaa that promoted the free flow of digital music, our choices are pretty much limited to content that's wrapped by Apple, Microsoft, and to a lesser extent Real.  I say "to a lesser extent" because, as can be seen from this Rhapsody To Go page on Real's web site, Real is advertising "unrestricted access to 1,000,000+ songs" while that the same time saying that the songs can only be played back on two devices: iRiver's H10 and Creative's Zen Micro.  That's some unrestricted access! 

Whether your a high end audiophile like me, or just want to take your digital entertainment to go, the state of the state is producing an untenable situation for digital content buyers.  In my case, DRM-wrapped digital content is entirely defeating the elegance of having the centralized whole-home entertainment system that I'm trying to put in.  Instead of having a single digital content server to serve up all my music and movies, regardless of where I buy them from, I need special extenders like docks so that something Fairplay-compliant like an iPod can be connected to the whole system and "browsed" as a separate source of audio.  Uh, that wasn't the idea folks. 

Likewise, my son's iPod Photo broke about four months after he got it.  It still doesn't work (an action item that I must get to).  We have other MP3 players in the house including an el-cheapo memory card based device from Memorex.  But, as long as the iPod is out of commission, my son's music collection is pretty much useless to him. 

Equipment will break. The idea that our digital content libraries should be useless to us isn't the right idea either.  The Electronic Frontier Foundation's John Gilmore agrees.  Across two separate e-mails to me, Gilmore wrote:

Everything breaks eventually.  They stop selling that model.  The batteries stop taking charges within 3 or 4 years.  By then the vendor forgets that you were a customer -- you're now a support burden.  "I'm sorry sir, but that's the policy." ....The librarians and archivists of the world are very concerned that DRM-based audio and video works will not be accessible to future generations.  Libraries won't bother archiving things from media that can't be played on modern equipment and can't be ported forward into modern equipment ....That's the sort of market-segmentation restrictions DRM is designed to impose.  After all, a guy who spent $20K on a stereo can afford to pay twice as much per song or album.  Or pay every time he plays the song.  There's no sense (from Hollywood's point of view) letting you get away with paying the same thing every poor bloke does.

Actually, the affordability issue is not the case. One of the reasons I'm paying $20K up front is to reduce my costs on separate equipment and copies and management headaches associated with the digital content later. 

Gilmore wasn't alone in responding.  Plenty of other ZDNet readers chimed in as well.  Some gave me a hard time for even considering MP3 as my playback format with such high end audio gear.   That's true.  While it may be the lingua franca of digital music formats, the MP3 encoding scheme - as "adjustable" as it is -- doesn't exactly offer the greatest in audio quality when compared to others. In answer to that comment, the high end gear I'm considering (from Escient, for example), also supports the open source-based Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC) format as well as WMA and WAV. FLAC is probably the best, but all of those formats offer significantly better audio quality than the MP3 format does. The catch-22 is that today, none of the online music stores sell FLAC-encoded music.    

Well, except for one in Russia.

One option, according to one reader, is use the Russian-based AllofMP3.com.  Not only does AllofMP3.com offer DRM-free music, it encodes the music on the fly (prior to download) in the encoding scheme of your choice.  Choices include MP3, FLAC, Windows Media Audio (WMA), Ogg Vorbis (OGG), MusePack (MPC), and MPEG-4 and bit-rates are selectable for users looking to get the highest quality audio possible out of certain formats.  For example, MP3's are available in bit rates of 128, 192, and 320 kbps (the 320 kbps bit rate is not supported by most MP3 players).  The bigger the bit-rate though, the bigger the download and the bigger the download, the more you pay (.02 per megabyte of traffic). 

Unfortunately, while AllofMP3.com seems to provide some relief to the DRM conundrum, it may not for very long. According to a spokesperson for the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA),  the
International Federation of the Phonograph Industry (IFPI) -- the international equivalent of the RIAA -- is suing to prevent AllofMP3.com from selling DRM-free music.  Although a IFPI spokesperson was not available for comment as I was preparing to publish this blog, IFPI Web site has February 2005-dated press release that mentions a police investigation into the online outfit as well as the illegality of its practices.  Meanwhile, here we are seventh months later and the site is still up and running.  One reason is that the case, according to Russian law, may, as this Web page indicates, not be as cut and dry as the RIAA or IFPI thinks.

According to that page, AllofMP3.com works with the Russian Organization for Multimedia & Digital Systems (ROMS), and organization that apparently handles the compensation of Russian and foreign (to Russians) artists for music that's purchased a la carte from outfits like AllofMP3.com.  But, part of the dispute apparently relates to whether all copyright holders are getting compensated.  For example, with most music, there are three copyright holders: the songwriter, the artist who performs it, and the record label.  According to at least one outdated Web page, not all of them are getting the royalties that are due to them from ROMS.  I also found another, more recent Web page that discussed the issue (see Odd music industry silence regarding AllofMP3.com).

As both an industry journalist and a consumer with a vested interest in the outcome, my preference isn't to engage in refugee-like behavior -- that is, constantly moving from one haven of questionable legality to the next (AllofMP3.com isn't the first and it most certainly won't be the last).  I also don't want to rob the copyright holders of the revenue they're due.  I'll gladly pay.  But, short of having a DRM standard that all providers and playback technologies can comply with, the DRM fiasco is a mess that's only going to get worse.  Unfortunately, as long as the entertainment industry likes the way certain technology companies can protect its interests, it also has no problem propping up the monopolies or oligopolies that will come as a result.  And, as long as we buy content that's wrapped by those technology companies, one could easily say "neither do we."

Topics: Legal

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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