The DRM grinch who stole Christmas

The DRM grinch who stole Christmas

Summary: Are you hoping that Santa will put a portable audio player in your stocking this year? Or, are you thinking about stuffing someone else's stocking with one.


Are you hoping that Santa will put a portable audio player in your stocking this year? Or, are you thinking about stuffing someone else's stocking with one.  Then all I have to say to you is buyer beware.  As these devices become more mainstream -- meaning that people who know nothing about them or technology will be buying them -- it's doubtful that the sellers of these products are going to be of much assistance in helping you to understand that all portable audio players are created so unalike that they can't even play the same music.  That reality hit me today with the same thud that a 400 page tree killing catalog from the New York-based B&H Photo-Video-Pro Audio outlet made when the mailman dropped it in front of my door today. 

The cover of the catalog is graced with pictures several portable audio products including Apple's new video iPod. At first, being the gadgethead that I am, I excitedly popped open the new catalog -- here not coincidentally just in time for holiday buying -- to walk B&H's paper aisles.  Getting one of these catalogs is sort of like the testosterone rush that a lot of guys get as they pass through the automatic doors at Home Depot.

But, being the anti-digital restrictions management activist that I am, my splendor turned to curiousity when I noticed how much of the catalog was dedicated to portable audio players. In big bold text against a purple background on pages 18-67 are the words "Portable Audio Players."  After thinking about that for minute, I turned to some other sections to see what they were called.  One section is called "DVD Players and Recorders."  Another section is called "CD and Cassette Players."  Still, a third (only two pages in length) is called "S-VHS VCRs."  I can understand why the catalog doesn't have one big massive section called "Physical Media Players and Recorders." 

After all, when was the last time you or your three-year old try to jam a cassette into the CD player? Or a DVD into the VCR? Or how about a DVD into a CD player? Strange as it may seem, all these physical media, along with their players and recorders, are incompatible with each other.  So, it comes as no surprise that B&H has a different section in its catalog for each.  So, why then, should an entire section of devices that are in many cases incompatible with each other, all be lumped under one single heading?: "Portable Audio Players." Couldn't that be confusing?  Couldn't buyers who know little or nothing about the product genre or technology be misled into thinking that all the players in the 50 page section can play the same content?  The answer is "yes" and the reality is that they cannot (thanks to the incompatible digital restrictions management technology that's built into them).  

That's right.  It's not like when you could by someone a CD player and know that they could go to any music store -- ANY store -- buy a CD, and play it in your gift.  No. When you buy them one of these gizmos, they can only go to a special music store that's just for that gizmo.  Even worse, if they own another one of these gizmos -- perhaps an older one that only does audio -- and you want to buy them one of the newer portable audio devices that also supports video, you could end up buying your loved one something that none of his or her current music works on.  You see, if they've been going to one special type of music store and the device you purchased for them requires them to go to another type, then the tens, hundreds, or maybe even thousands of dollars they have spent on music so far will be of no use on your gift. 

It's sort of like what would happen if your friend had a couple hundred VHS tapes and you purchased a Betamax machine for them.  At least with those machines, or with cassette and 8-track players, you could sort of tell they were incompatible just by looking at them.   But with portable audio players, they all look the same.  They all have hard drives or memory.  They all have displays.  They all have buttons.  No apparent moving parts (like tape players have).  "How could this be?" you ask. You must be kidding David.  Nope.  This is the truth.  Honest.  I'm not making this up.  That's because they all have a disease too.  Officially, the technology that causes these incompatibilities is called Digital Rights Management (DRM).  But I've been calling it Digital Restrictions Management.  But perhaps "Diseased Rights Management" does a better job of getting the point across. Even if you're a technologist or someone who knows what the source of these incompatibilities are, how to spot them, and how to avoid the resulting disasters, you have to admit that this is a really screwed up situation.

Under each of the items it has for sale, the B&H catalog offers some more information.  Clues to how the average buyer could really get screwed.  On page 57 for example, on the page for Olympus' m:robe MR-500i, it says "Compatible with major MP3 and WMA formats (variable bit rate)."  Just before that, on page 56, in the blurb about JVC's XA-MP51, it says it has "support for both MP3 and WMA (DRM) files."  On page 60 is an advertisement for Sandisk's Sansa e100 series with a bullet point that says "Supports MP3, WMA, secure WMA, and Audible audio formats."  On the other hand, Sandisk's m200 series (on the same page) has "Support for MP3, WMA (both protected/DRM and unprotected) and Audible audio file formats."  I'm quoting exactly.  On the next page are Sony's Walkman Bean MP3 Players.  They support "unsecured WMA and WAV files" and they're  "compatible with the Connect Music Store."  Then, there's the Sony NW-HD5 that can "Playback ATRAC3 and ATRAC3plus files as well as MP3, WMA3, and WAV files."  And then there's a voluminous section on iPods that says iPods support "popular audio formats including MP3 (up to 320 kbps), MP3 Variable Bit Rate (VBR) and WAV... They are also the only portable digital music players to support the AAC format (Mac-only).."

So, let's see what that makes in terms of uniquely rendered format names:

  • AAC (Mac-only)
  • ATRAC3
  • ATRAC3plus
  • MP3
  • MP3 (up to 320 kbps) - suggests that there are some forms of MP3 that aren't good up to 320 kbps.
  • MP3 Variable Bit Rate (VBR) - can't imply anything about VBR as it relates to 320 kbps
  • WMA
  • WMA (DRM)
  • WMA (protected/DRM) - inclusion of the term "protected" for someone who has no idea what DRM means could mean this is different from "WMA (DRM)" by itself.
  • WMA (unprotected) - specification of "unprotected" suggests that this could be different from just plan WMA
  • WMA (variable bit rate)
  • WMA3
  • Secure WMA - could be the same as WMA protected, but then again, why the different terminology?

With no other charts or pages in the catalog to bring clarity to the situation and pretending to be someone who didn't know how to make heads or tails of this list, I called the 800 number listed at the bottom of every page in the catalog to get some assistance from someone in B&H's portable audio sales.  After navigating B&H's touchtone system, I found my way to Dave.  Dave explained to me that these are just different file formats but that most music is either in the WMA or MP3 format.  Dave went on to explain that all the different references to WMA are actually just referring to the same thing and that iPods can play it too. 

The truth?

They don't refer to the same thing and only some WMA files are compatible with iPods.  The big difference has to do with where the music is purchased.  If for example, the music is purchased from Apple's iTunes Music Store (IMS), then it won't work in any portable audio players but Apple's iPods (and also Motorola's Rockr phone). If the music is purchased from a Microsoft PlaysForSure-compliant music store , it won't work in Apple's iPods.  If it's purchased from the aforementioned Connect Music Store, then it only works players that are compliant with Sony's Open MagicGate (OpenMG) DRM technology (in other words, Sony's players).  Speaking of Sony, if you buy a Sony BMG CD that's still saddled with the rootkit-based DRM technology it protected many of its artists CDs' with, you or the loved one you purchased it for won't be able to get that music into an iPod (just to bring things full circle). 

Sounds crazy doesn't it?  Crazy to have multiple in compatible music players.  Crazy to have multiple incompatible music source.   Salespeople at the store where you can buy all of these incompatible devices who tell you they're compatible.   Much the same way CDs don't fit into cassette recorders and DVDs don't work in CD players and B&H has separate sections for those, perhaps it would make more sense for B&H to have separate sections for WMA players, Secure WMA players, OpenMG players, AAC players, etc?  Of course that would be ludicrous because of the way it would draw attention to, well, a completely ridiculous situation.  One that we the sheeple shouldn't be putting up with. But like good little sheep whose shepherds apparently know best, we are. Imagine for example if Ford told us we could put Ford-approved gas from Ford approved gas stations into its automobiles while GM told us the same thing with respect to GM-approved gas stations and its cars.  Consumers would put them out of business in a heartbeat.  So, why do we put up with this crap here? Want to put an end to this shameless behavior on behalf of our technology and content providers? Stop buying the technology and the content.  Stop now, before its too late.

Topic: Legal

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  • The solution, everyone just use MS products.

    Actauly products that support the MS formats. (MS is not like Apple and doesn't sell the hardware.)
    • I Don't Understand

      How does this fix the problem of digital restrictin management?

      That's like answering David by saying GM, Toyota, Honda, Chrysler, etc. etc., should all standardize on Ford gas - and pay Ford for the privelage of course.

      Windows days are numbered.
      Stephen Wheeler
    • Alas for your agenda

      MS media formats don't work.

      No, I don't mean "don't work on my computer systems," although that's also true; there are workarounds for that.

      I mean that they're crappy audio. Every comparative review of lossy audio formats has WMA coming in dead last overall and only out of anchor territory on heavily-predistorted material (think Metallica).

      Given a choice between my favorite jazz, classical, big band, flamenco, etc. on WMA and AM radio it's a no-brainer: AM radio wins.

      Microsoft is once again demonstrating that they are the digital era's embodiment of Gresham's Law.
      Yagotta B. Kidding
      • I agreed with you...

        ... about the inadequacy of wma. But after a discussion on these boards I looked again.

        The wma format has been getting some good reviews, and recordings at 160+ are not bad.

        I still use mp3 because of software, but for rip and burn uncompressed wma is as good as any.
        Anton Philidor
    • MS formats are definately not the solution

      I'd rather die than use the DRM laden Music of MS which forces me to use their gruesome WindowsMediaPlayer.

      Altough iTunes songs have these restrictions as well, i prefer the ease of buying songs via iTunes above all other experiences, which force me to either use Internet Explorer (because of use of active X) or let me rent music.

      As long as it is necessary, I buy my music, put it on a CD and then convert it to a format which is less burdened with restrictions where and when I can listen to it (actually i need to burn anyway it as i've got no ipod interface in my car ;) )

      I'm already taken aback with those websites that force Internet Explorer up to me before i can see their content (MTV Overdrive and Nick).

      I'm willing to pay for the content, but i want to be able to choose the manner how i use it. They may even fingerprint the stuff, as long as i can do with it as I please for al media i wish to use the content on (even if this means that i need to put in these players some id file). But then again why would they do this??
      • You don't have to use WMP for wma.

        Just about every non-Microsoft player will play wma files. Some need a plug-in, but those are free and usually come with the player.

        Though I suspect you still do not intend to convert your entire collecton to wma now that you know. :-)
        Anton Philidor
    • MS?

      How on earth did Microsoft ever acquire fanboys? Who are you, George Ou?
    • Get a grip people, I'm just messin with ya.

      It really makes little difference to me as I don't buy DRM protected music. Shrug...
  • Sort of like using a browser to view ZDNet pages

    or use the talkbacks...

    Why can't you people get it together?
    • Browser = Open Stanards

      This would be fine with me providing the same model applied - i.e. anyone can make a playeer because there are open standards out there (just as there are for browsers).

      David has called for an open copyright protection standard many times.
      Stephen Wheeler
    • No_Ax in rare form today

      Trolling and misdirecting. What's wrong No_Ax, get up on the wrong side of the computer today?
      Roger Ramjet
      • Sorry you didn't get it.

        Not to worry, those with a 6th grade education understood it.
        • I got it

          Very clever Ax. What you actually seem to be saying is that they should apply a common open standard to DRM, controlled by an independent non-profit body and shared and implemented by all concerned parties to the benefit of the users. A standard that would mean tracks downloaded from Napster could be played on an iPod, and tracks downloaded from iTunes could be played on a Sony.

          Simple really, can't figure out why I didn't get it the first time.
  • Ever wonder why

    almost none of them support Ogg Vorbis?

    Keep in mind that it doesn't cost the manufacturer any license fees to use it. Due to the way ROM sizes work, there's also an excellent chance that the code won't increase hardware costs at all.

    MP3 is why "lossy" gets pronounced as "lousy." WMA is, if anything, worse for most audio. Vorbis actually does the best job of handling the kind of music I like, and yet there are only a couple of players on the market that work with it.

    So the question I keep asking is, "why?"
    Yagotta B. Kidding
    • DRM

      Maybe Ogg Vorbis doesn't support the DRM they desire, you know the kind that puts rootkits on your windows PC, enables them to decide on what machine you use them.

      MS puts fear in them, so they use the "save and copyprotected format" of MS

      Ogg Vorbis doesn't have a marketing department only satisfied users :)
      • That only explains

        [i]Maybe Ogg Vorbis doesn't support the DRM they desire, you know the kind that puts rootkits on your windows PC, enables them to decide on what machine you use them.[/i]

        That explains why online music services don't ship Vorbis, but it doesn't explain why [b]player[/b] manufacturers don't support it.
        Yagotta B. Kidding
    • Because

      As Gates once said in the 80s (apologies for paraphrasing):
      "The Internet is okay with me - so long as I have a toll-booth on it."

      Everyone once to have the next Windows (read: proprietary technical franchise with lock-in and built-in barriers to competitive market entry).
      Stephen Wheeler
    • Because Ogg sux. I'd rather listen to AM radio.

      • Just plain WRONG Bit

        I work with mp3, ogg, and ogg provides superior quality. In fact if you have ears and are actually willing to compare, it's a foregone conclusion. Forget about WMA entirely.

        No Diseased Restrictions Manglement for me. EVER!
        Tim Patterson
        • Categorical fallacy

          Doesn't answer the question, Don.

          "It sucks" is a sufficient reason to reject limiting yourself to [b]one[/b] format, but has nothing to do with including support for multiple formats.
          Yagotta B. Kidding