Now that Microsoft's licensed DRM doesn't "Play For Sure," will any DRM do it? Ever?

Now that Microsoft's licensed DRM doesn't "Play For Sure," will any DRM do it? Ever?

Summary: The rest of the world is beginning to get hip to what happens when the provider of a digital rights management technology (DRM) decides to change gears as Microsoft recently did when it essentially forked its DRM into two versions: one that it keeps for itself and its Zune brand and the other, known as PlaysForSure that, for the time being, it continues to license to licensees such as Real, Yahoo, F.Y.

TOPICS: Microsoft

The rest of the world is beginning to get hip to what happens when the provider of a digital rights management technology (DRM) decides to change gears as Microsoft recently did when it essentially forked its DRM into two versions: one that it keeps for itself and its Zune brand and the other, known as PlaysForSure that, for the time being, it continues to license to licensees such as Real, Yahoo, F.Y.E., Napster, AOL, Wal-Mart and MTV. Even prior to this gear-shift, I occasionally referred to PlaysForSure as PlaysForSuren't since music and videos that are locked up with Microsoft's copy protection technology actually don't play for sure on every device you might want them to (eg: iPods). That said, PlaysForSure-compliant content most definitely works on more devices than does content locked up by Apple's DRM (FairPlay).  Inicidentally, just to show I discriminate with this sort of treament, I've also referred to FairPlay as "UnFairPlay."

But, since content that's protected with Microsoft's PlaysForSure (including content purchased from Microsoft's soon-to-be-closed online music store) won't even work on Microsoft's Zune-branded devices, the contradiction that has long been "plays for sure" has been taken to a new level. The situation has Jamie, a blogger over on Microsoft's Channel 9, now referring to PlaysForSure as PlaysForMaybe:

I really dont get how the biggest software co. in the world - sets up a huge network of partners to trumpet their own technology: "plays for sure" - then when it itself enters the market - refuses to use it....Now if it was called "Windows Media Approved" - and zune didnt support it - that would be one thing... but the fact that you guys named the eco-system Plays for Sure - and then went and made the term meaningless seems counter-intuitive?...If I was a partner in [PlaysForSure], I'd be pretty peeved off.

That last part is the part that's got me stymied too. One day, Microsoft was a business partner to all the PlaysForSure licensees. The next? A competitor. For starters, to any PlaysForSure licensee that didn't know that this risk existed, I have no sympathy. As with any technology provider, Microsoft is of course entitled to do whatever it thinks it must do (legally) to fend off a credible threat. In this case, given FairPlay's market dominance as a DRM system, Apple is a very real and credible threat to a lot of Microsoft's businesses (virtually the entire software stack could one day subjugate itself to DRM). But, if Microsoft's PlaysForSure licensees are peeved about the gear shift, they sure aren't voting with their dollars by vacating the PlaysForSure ecosystem. Of course, they could be staying put for good reasons. Like the fact that there may be no viable alternatives.

Back in the early days of Microsoft's Passport single sign-on technology, Sun's Jonathan Schwartz warned that Passport licensees might one day find themselves in competition with the vendor of Passport: Microsoft. Schwartz, then in his pre-COO days (let alone CEO days), then established and personally drove an open and competing ecosystem (the Liberty Alliance) into the market. He lobbied hard for all potential stakeholders to get behind it and many did. 

To the extent that Microsoft is now competing with PlaysForSure licensees, Microsoft's gear-shift around DRM is a realization of that warning. The difference is that neither Sun nor any other IT vendor has stepped in to put Microsoft and/or Apple (the two prevailing proprietors of DRM technology) into check. Not only does Sun have the seed technology (called Project DReaM) the way it did for the Liberty Alliance, it even has in place a separate organization (Open Media Commons or the OMC) that can serve as chaperone to the open technology. Theoretically, the Liberty formula is ready to be repeated with the OMC. And what better time to repeat it than at that very point when existing stakeholders are peeved and seeking an alternative?

But, as far as I can tell, the various stakeholders (the whole entertainment cartel, Yahoo, AOL, etc.) are happy to let Apple and Microsoft call the shots. All is quiet on the Western front. Or is it? Originally, I thought there hadn't been a peep out of Sun about Project DReaM or the OMC since Zune first showed up on the radar. I figured that this can only mean one of two things: (a) OMC and DReaM are either floundering or dead or (b) there's something large but stealthy in the works that only a handful of people know about. But then, before completing this blog entry, I decided to double check the URL for the OMC by visiting its Web site.

When I got there, I noticed a podcast interview (by Sun's Hal Stern, of Sun's current DReaM figurehead Tom Jacobs) was published just yesterday. At approximately 6:30 into the interview, Jacobs indicates that he was on some sort of conference call in advance an "upcoming Digital Hollywood event" taking place in Santa Monica. At first, I began to wonder if Sun and the OMC had some big news planned. But, as it turns out, the Santa Monica edition of that event took place last month which means that the podcast was published approximately one month after it was recorded (back in early to mid October). Not only that, the Santa Monica edition of Digital Hollywood appears to have pretty much come and gone without a peep from Sun or the OMC after all. Whatever happened on that conference call was apparently no big deal. 

So, while the project still seems to be getting funding from Sun, there's no driving force at Sun working the smoke signals the way Schwartz did with Liberty. Meanwhile, the window of opportunity, while still open, will inch closed when Microsoft's Zune comes to market on November 15th. Advantage: Microsoft. 

Finally, I get a lot of harrassment from those opposed to DRM when I talk about how it would be better for the market to have a standard and open DRM system versus multiple proprietary ones. They're not so different from each other that one version stands a chance of technologically serving the market better than the others (the way Blu-Ray and HD-DVD claim to be better than each other). So, just to be clear, what I most want is no DRM. But I don't see the entertainment cartel changing its mind any time soon in terms of the copy-protection it requires before it will allow its content to be sold for download on the Internet. I also don't think the status quo will be disrupted any time soon by rebel forces of independent artists who are willing to work under different business rules. So, short of eliminating DRM altogether, things would be a lot better if DRM were more open and interoperable.  

Poll update: A couple of weeks ago, I asked who should be Microsoft's Bono? The point was that Apple has brilliantly taken a technology business (iTunes Music Store, iTunes Software, and iPods) and turned it into a fashion business. I listed a bunch of choices that Microsoft to pick to be its Bono. What I didn't realize is that there are at least four other candidates (perhaps they will work in combination). Looking at MSN Music, Microsoft has already been sponsoring (see bottom left) three musicians on tour: John Mayer, John Legend, and Rod Stewart (a trio that together could transcend multiple generations the way U2's Bono does for the iPod). In addition to those three, Microsoft was a major supporter of the reality show Rock Star Supernova during which rock superstars Tommy Lee (Mötley Crüe), Gilby Clarke (Guns N Roses), and Jason Newsted (Metallica). So, maybe Microsoft's Bono will be more of an all-star line-up. Or, maybe not.

Disclosure: In the spirit of media transparency, I want to disclose that in addition to my day job at ZDNet, I’m also a co-organizer of Mashup Camp, Mashup University, and Startup Camp. Microsoft and Sun, both of which are mentioned in this story, were sponsors of one or more of those events. For more information on my involvement with these and other events, see the special disclosure page that I’ve prepared and published here on ZDNet.

Topic: Microsoft

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  • It's called lock-in

    and it happens over and over and over and over again. Tech vendors want control of the profits. What I don't get is why the customers don't say, "Look, go out and put your heads to gether with the rest of industry and come back when you have an open and interoperable standard."

    These "partnerships" never are.
  • DRM is dead, content companies don't get to decide

    ---So, just to be clear, what I most want is no DRM. But I don't see the entertainment cartel changing its mind any time soon in terms of the copy-protection it requires before it will allow its content to be sold for download on the Internet.---

    This is where I think you're really wrong. The content companies don't get the final say. The purchasers get the final say. So far, most products locked down with DRM are failing. iTunes sales have plateaued, and are still miniscule compared to physical music sales. Fans of band have revolted when they discover DRM on cds. DRM is a concept that will never take hold, no matter how badly the RIAA/MPAA are counting on it to cover their now plummeting finances. Here's a lovely article recommended by Ed Meyers, an interview with the former manager of Pink Floyd and The Clash, who does a nice job explaining where things are going:

    Also note, the recording industry has, once again, been caught lying about piracy:
    tic swayback
    • I hate to break the news to you ...

      ... but just yesterday there was a piece on the news about the bankruptcy of Tower records -- the point being that on-line sales of music was killing the CD industry. There is damned little music that you can download that is not DRM-protected.
      M Wagner
  • Oh, and you used the word "Zune" incorrectly

    If you're coining new words, like CRAP, UnFairPlay and such, please use Zune appropriately. It's a verb, meaning to lose all of your paid for content when a company decides to change the terms of the DRM they sold you, as in, "Man, Microsoft just totally zuned everyone who ever bought a Plays-For-Sure song."

    Don't be stupid, don't be a sucker. Don't buy music with DRM. Rip it yourself, or buy online from honest merchants like Magnatune or eMusic.
    tic swayback
  • DRM is a joke.

    There is something to be said for the old addage of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it". There is something to be said for trusty MP3 which so far, works everywhere. Since an IPOD reads and plays MP3, there ya go! I will be making a purchase of one of them shortly and don't plan on any Zune in my future.
    • Do not forget Ogg-Vorbis

      The tracks that I rip from my personal CD collection for my Digital Music Player are all saved in ogg-vorbis format, which gives better sound quality and compression than the old mp3 format. It is also a completely open format, unlike mp3. It's harder to find a player that handles ogg-vorbis (funny how they all handle Microsofts WMA files....) but it's worth it. Since my digital music consists of tracks from my own library, plus some independent music mp3's distributed for free on the internet by the copyright holders (some much better than the crap churned out by the RIAA), I have not a single WMA file on my digital music player.
  • MaybePlays

    It might work on your PC if it doesn't mistakenly think you are registered on another PC. It will also maybeplay is your license is intack and you haven't had to re-install your PC. MaybePlays says it all.

    As for the content providers, I make the rules with my money. $0 DRM infected content purchased, and it will remain that way forever. I don't need to buy content, do you have a need to sell your music?

  • PlayForSome?

    I betcha most of these PFS licensee have no plan B ready for such a move by the 'noble' Microsoft. And with Microsoft killing their own PlayForSome Store (the original iTunes killer itself: MSN Music Store), do we need anymore proof that PFS will get no love? Anyone who bought DRM music from the soon to close MSN Music Store can not take 'their' music over to the Zune Service. A crying shame for consumers!

    eMusic (with no DRM) is doing well, and that's with only Independent music, go figure!
    • Or how about "Played For Suckers"? ;-) (NT).

    • DYI

      There is another gorilla on the horizon for the big labels. The current generation of young performers has grown up with computers and high tech electronics. With the advent of cheap powerful computers and the falling cost of top quality sound gear, and internet distribution, many are starting to explore do it yourself recording, production, promotion and marketing. It's sort of an "Indie to the Ultimate Degree" approach. The Big Name Labels in the future may find fewer and fewer young artists knocking on their door wanting in. I know two young performers from Austin that now have six full CD's released that their only out of pocket expense have been duplication and packaging. One of them has converted his spare bedroom into a sound studio and they do all their own recording, mixing and overdubbing. They are making enough off sales and performance fees to quite their day jobs and do music full time.
      All the artwork for their last couple of CDs has been done by a young lady friend of theirs in the Netherlands whi is a very talented graphic artist. (The boys and she have never met) When they have the nearly final tracts done she downloads them off the boy?s site and starts emailing them her ideas. By the time the master is ready to send to the duplicator, she has sent them the final artwork.
      Another facet of the same trend is the Independent Audio Engineers that can now afford the kind of gear it takes to set up a high quality recording studio. I have a friend here in north Texas who is a top flight "sound guy" that has done that. He is so good that if you want him to record, mix and master your CD you have to get in line.

      None of these trends bode well for the big guy?s long term future.
      • Slight correction

        I think you mean "DIY", as in "Do It Yourself".

        Another interesting development is sites like this one:

        Here you're asking fans to act as investors in a band, to raise the money in advance to pay for recording an album. I'm not thrilled with this site's business model, give the music away and sell ads on the page, but they're on to something. Bands should sell themselves to fans like a company sells stock. Sell shares in a new cd to fans, fans get a copy of the cd when it comes out and share in the profits. Get fans to finance a tour. One more area where the record companies are no longer needed.
        tic swayback
        • Dang Fingers

          You are right,,DIY,,,just washed my fingers and can't do anything with them. ;-)

          The boys (and a fair number of their friends) do simular things, like getting their fans to pre-order on a CD project. They finace (at least partialy) their out of town gigs by getting fans along the way to set up "house concerts". Ten or Fifteen people at $10.00 a head goes a long way toward offstting travel cost.
          I will pass the link along to them.
      • How much does a band really make?

        Looking at the industry as a whole. Artists really make very very little off of "Record Contracts" with a big label. The true bread and butter comes from touring, so long as you have a fan base you could do away entirely with a "Record Contracts". Look at John Mayer, Dashboard Confessional, Flaming Lips, Pearl Jam, Phish, the list goes on and on. I'm sure that most bands would "GIVE" their music away freely so long as you promised to show up for a concert.
        So what is the real reason the Majors are losing money? Because they make poor investments into music that sucks to begin with. Case in point. The big gives $5 million to the latest rap/hip hop artist for a multi record deal. 6 months later he's dead or in prison. Or they find bands that sound just like the hottest band out then inundate the market with 20 bands that sound identical. This has been happening way to often and really kills the scene as a whole. I say let the fans decide what sounds good and what wants to be heard. Put it up for free and see who gets the most downloads THEN decide to push an album (i.e K-Fed). Hell you could fill the Staples Center with better ideas and bands than what the "experts" have come up with. I mean when you're trying to push a 70 year old Rod Stewart or the Stones or an American Idol Winner as the latest hot ticket you've pretty much lost touch with reality. Real music junkies and audiophiles look at American Idol with utter disgust and contempt. It is designed for sheeple that change their music tastes as often as they change the channel.
        • Seconded

          [B]This has been happening way to often and really kills the scene as a whole.[/B]

          I have about 5K songs from my CD collection on my computer (and less than 5 bought in the last few years). The radio is on long enough for the FM modulator to saturate and then it is always my iriver player on the radio. 1 song in 8 is decent on the radio these days, and they play all of them to death. Saturation play, saturate the market, get the CDs sold, move on to the next formula tune.

          After 6 months, you never hear the "hit tunes" on the radio, their sales potential has petered out, there are other hot artists to pump for a couple of months.

          Like you said, the reason they are losing revenue, the major labels are always in it for the short haul with formula music. Let the artists create the music the way they know how, I might buy some.

  • Well, David, I certainly expected this ...

    Back in the mainframe days, IBM did this all the time: engage partners in all sorts of projects, gain some serious customers, and then, if they didn't reach some crtitcal mass, or if IBM decided it had a better idea, they would summarily drop the technology. Microsoft certainly learned from the best!

    As for Apple's DRM vs Microsoft's DRM, at least Apple has a reputation of giving their customers exactly what they promise to give them -- at what their customers believe to be a fair price.

    Even people that won't pay Apple's premium prices won't badmouth them!

    Microsoft, on the other hand, is viewed by many of their customers (not to mention their detractors) as being heavy-handed and anti-competitive. Whether this is a fair comparison between these two corporate entities really isn't the point.

    The point is this: DRM, and its associated licensing terms (subject to change without notice) are a "slippery slope" which give all corporate entities too much control over materials they have already sold to you.

    In effect, turning that 'sale' into an open-ended 'lease' which can be terminated at any time without notice.
    M Wagner
  • DRM is Extortion

    Doesn't matter the implementation. It is IMPOSSIBLE to protect something that is analogous in nature. Be it music or video the end data is something that must be outputted to either speakers or TV. VIOLA! You just defeated ALL DRM. So whats left? Is RIAA/MPAA going to cover my ears and eyes until I pay an extortion fee? The reality of the modern world is evolve or die and clearly the choice has been made and with every new machination a nail is hammered into the coffin. Grow up RIAA/MPAA and change the business model or let me know where I can send condolences.
  • If there wasn't so much stealing.....

    The point to DRM is to protect the owners of download theft. I am all for it because it does happen everyday. People download on peer-to-peer program like Limewire and Morpheus and never paying most of the time for music, thus showing how rude, selfish, ignorant and a loser they really are. If you go into any store and get caught stealing you are generally arrested and charged with theft, so just because it is downloading music, videos or programs, no one has the right to use Warez, peer-to-peer to steal or to alter anyone's property, period. End of story. By the way, Apple iPods are not as good as Creative Zen Photo and other devices and since the .WMA music format is a better encoding, people are going to use it if they want to compress music. And most of us know Apple Quicktime can and usually causes codec interference.
    • Take another hit off the old crack pipe.

      .WMA is by far and away the very WORST format ever invented. Hello not EVERYONE uses Windoze. The point is to make a format that is UNIVERSAL. So for the sheeple that use Windoze, or others that use MACs, or Linux can Fairly Use the media that they have purchased and now OWN on any system in any way that they choose. Whether you burn it to a cd or put onto a handheld player or like myself have pc's with speakers throughout the house so I can listen to tunes where ever I may be. MP3 IS that standard period. Nothing will ever ever come close to it.
      • Agreed but,

        Ogg Vorbis is superior to MP3 in terms of quality and compression, available on all platforms, completely open, royalty free.

        It is a much better choice for a standard.
        The only thing MP3 has going for it is that it is a legacy format and is in more widespread usage.

    It's that simple. All the whinning in the world by David Berlind and all the other DRM haters of the world won't change this. Producers of content, be it audio or video, will by and large demand that they receive payment for their works. Certainly, there's room for lots of starting out artists and producers of content to initially give away some of their work to create recognition, but once any money loving person reaches a certain level of success, then they'll want to be paid.

    One has to look no further than DRM to realize that until Stallman and the rest of the OSS community's leaders accept that market forces will keep DRM around, then Linux has zero chance of gaining desktop marketshare. All the OSS community is doing is allowing Apple to steal away the crumbs of users from Microsoft.