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

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.

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TOPICS: Legal
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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."

Topic: Legal

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28 comments
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  • Have you tried MP3Tunes or Magnatune?

    Both Magnatune.com and MP3Tunes don't put any DRM on their music. Or you could try BadApple to get iTunes songs onto other players.
    Tony Agudo
  • This is one of many problems

    with the current line of thinking within this country. Capitalism will eventually kill itself off because of the control and greed associated with it. Is there a better system? I don't know I am not an expert in government nor am I an expert in business... well modern business that is.

    The recording industry is just an example of a legal Mafia. They are setting themselves up to have total control over all media, including the written works. And this is dangerous and a problem in a nation that is supposed to be free and allow free speach as well as the freedom of expression.

    With the media conglomerates in total control of your digital media they will be able to extort from you any price they see fit. It's starting to happen now with all the lawsuits against children and college students. People that do not have the financial clout to defend against this kind of tyranny.

    And we can thank Lars Ulrich the drummer for Metallica for this. His one man crusade against their fans was the onus that moved the RIAA and the MPAA to begin the witch hunt against their fans. And what is really sick is you people still support them by buying the overpriced and over regulated media. Soon you will only be able to play certain media houses on certain audio video components.

    MGM can only be viewed with DRM enabled Sansui
    Monogram can only be viewed with DRM enabled Sony

    These are just an example of what I mean and not actually valid or true at this point in time... but the day is coming if we continue to allow the RIAA and the MPAA dictate to us, the consumer, how we can enjoy what we paid for.
    Linux User 147560
    • excellent post

      I might add that a number of people (not me, though) are already getting around this issue in a way that gets them their music while denying the RIAA any profit.

      One of my coworkers has all the latest music (music I can't stand being a baby-boomer, hehe) and pays a fraction for it. And he does it in a way that is totally off the RIAA's radar screen. Simply put, he only buys CDs from "used media" stores. He takes them home, rips them, then returns them to the same store for a "credit" on his future purchases. And before he buys them from these used media stores, he first checks his local library (some libraries have a formidible CD collection) to see if a given CD can be "checked out" for free.

      Even copy-protected CDs are not an issue. He plays them on his CD/DVD player, runs the audio into his computer, and captures the music with a utility called TotalRecorder that saves all sound passing through a soundcard as a WAV file.

      The RIAA needs to seriously consider something that Princess Leia said to Darth Vader in Episode 4 ... "The more the empire tightens its grip, the more star systems will slip through its fingers."
      AlecWest
    • The genie is already out.

      "This is one of many problems
      with the current line of thinking within this country. Capitalism will eventually kill itself off because of the control and greed associated with it."

      The Irony is this is not capitalism as envisioned by the father of free market ideals, Adam Smith. His theory was to let free markets decide product and service prices, he was all about "laisez-fair" , hands off free market dynamics with a minimal amount of government intervention. Unfortunately the (US in particular) government often steps in to guarantee the rights of *corporations* over the rights of the consumer to try to balance the imbalances of the free market caused by the corporations in their persuit of endlessly rising profits. I think Adam Smith would have seen the DMCA as a terrible idea, p2p networks would have never come into such popularity if *many* people didn't feel that the current prices for music were too exorbitant. If the costs were inline with demand, people would be willing to pay a non zero price.

      "Is there a better system? I don't know I am not an expert in government nor am I an expert in business... well modern business that is."

      I think the answer doesn't matter, the amorphous nature of software distribution across the internet makes it essentially IMPOSSIBLE for any government or ALL governments working together to regulate the creation and distribution of p2p software which is created as a natural response to media prices that are too high. The recent government decisions regarding p2p in the U.S. are akin to trying to get the genie back in the bottle, the software is out (and being perfected constantly to become more accurate and robust), the networks are up...true the RIAA and other companies in the industry have done a great job of deploying poisoned honey pots to retard the distribution but this can (and will) be overcome simply by employing an integrity system for shared files and allowing filtering based on the results to exclude the communaly deemed bad files from peer searches. (bye bye RIAA honeypots)

      The DRM issues only continue to keep the option of p2p software alive in the consumers mind. As a consumer I should be able to buy my music and play it however I want , where ever I want if I am not reselling it. Anything else could be considered as violating a customers rights of ownership on that music, and that will keep p2p alive and well.

      Regards,
      sent2null
      • another excellent post

        Most of the full-time "pro" file-sharers are using encrypted utilities like Filetopia or the enigmatic EarthStation5 (whose website is down but software is still available) ... or have gone further underground to private networks, alt.binaries newsgroups, or IRC. The RIAA tends to only capture the "stupid" people who use more public means to acquire files (Kazaa, etc.).

        The funny thing is this. I totally support an artist's right to earn royalties for their work. And, I think most people feel the same way. But what sends us into the arms of shadier acquisition methods are the hoops put in place ... limiting our personal use of a product we buy. Somewhere out there, there must be a solution.
        AlecWest
      • Very nice post...

        thank you for your input and also for highlighting some areas I was weak in mine. Very much appretiated.
        Linux User 147560
    • Re: This is one of many problems

      [i]The recording industry is just an example of a legal Mafia. They are setting themselves up to have total control over all media, including the written works.

      [...]

      And we can thank Lars Ulrich the drummer for Metallica for this.[/i]



      Lars who?

      This would not be possible were it not for the cooperation of Congress. It is [i]law[/i] that enables this control, not technology.

      Don't blame Lars whoever he is, nor the music industry in general. Blame your Congressman.



      :)
      none none
      • in part, yes

        Laws put in place are a bugger. But the bottom line is that the industry itself creates and deploys DRM ... and doesn't need Congress's OK to do so. The restrictive laws are merely icing on the cake that came after the fact.
        AlecWest
        • Re: in part, yes

          [i]But the bottom line is that the industry itself creates and deploys DRM ... and doesn't need Congress's OK to do so. The restrictive laws are merely icing on the cake that came after the fact.[/i]

          I think you should think about that. Law is not the icing on the cake, it's the foundation upon which a DRM regime is built.

          The industry doesn't need Congress' OK to deploy DRM, but it's easy not to respect DRM's restrictions. It's not easy not to respect going to jail.

          Berlind would have a choice of technological fixes for his DRM problems if they weren't illegal.

          It's the JAIL part that of the DRM regime that makes DRM effective. Make no mistake about it. Legislators are the only ones who can make that happen. They are entirely to blame.



          :)
          none none
          • Your point

            Your point is well taken. But, consider this. The threat of punishment against those that tinker with DRM is only a deterrent against the potential casual offender. The serious full-time offender would not be deterred, just attempt to be more careful. This has been proven by the RIAA's attempt to quell file sharing. People still share files ... it's just that the serious full-time offenders are attempting to be more careful (encrypted utilities, private networks, IRC, etc.).

            Unfortunately, that leaves law-abiding citizens in a DRM dilemma. But I suspect most law-abiding citizens wouldn't try to tinker with DRM anyway, law or no law.
            AlecWest
      • No the source of the blame lies with Metallica's

        drummer, Lars Ulrich. He is the one that went to the Congress and abused his position to gain what he wanted. Congress is to blame as well but the originator is Lars. It's old news and a lot of Metallica fans, myself included were p!ssed at how he handled the issue, without really investigating the problem in the first place.

        Lars is a musician not a politician nor a computer affinado. He is the root cause of this whole fiasco.
        Linux User 147560
        • Re: No the source of the blame lies with Metallica's

          [i]He is the root cause of this whole fiasco.[/i]

          He didn't make it illegal to undo DRM restrictions. Congress did, and Congress alone.




          :)
          none none
          • You are not getting it.

            Sure Congress made the laws, but laws come from bills, bills come from representitives and are passed to the senate for review congress approves them. The reps get their initial idea for the bill from the people, and in a true Republic it's from the majority.

            Lars Ulrich abused the system and circumvented the majority by using his star power to address the house of representitives, then the senate and then congress.

            So he is still the root cause of the problem. The congress is just another aspect of it.
            Linux User 147560
          • Re: You are not getting it.

            [i]Sure Congress made the laws...[/i]

            Stop. End of paragraph.

            Think of it this way: which one, Congress or Lars, could have changed things by doing something differently?

            If Lars didn't say boo but Congress made the laws.

            If Lars screamed his head off but Congress didn't make the laws.

            It's not Lars' screaming, it's Congress' laws that have us where we are with DRM.

            It's a shame you don't hold those accountable you can do something about (your congressional reps), and blame something you can't do a thing about (Lars).


            :)
            none none
          • I'm not sure you understand how things work

            ---laws come from bills, bills come from representitives and are
            passed to the senate for review congress approves them. The
            reps get their initial idea for the bill from the people, and in a
            true Republic it's from the majority.---

            In a perfect world perhaps, although I'd disagree with the
            majority stuff--many of our most important laws are there to
            protect the minority against the tyranny of the masses. Freedom
            of religion/ separation of church and state is an obvious one.

            But make no bones about it, bills that get attention come from
            people willing to make large campaign contributions.

            ---Lars Ulrich abused the system and circumvented the majority
            by using his star power to address the house of representitives,
            then the senate and then congress.---

            Which do you think is more influential to a Congressman, a hairy
            rock drummer, or a guy in a suit with a check for $100,000.
            Take a look at the congressmen who support DRM and then
            head over to opensecrets.org and take a look at who funds
            them.
            tic swayback
    • You got the poision I got the remedy

      YOU SAY: "...what is really sick is you people still support them [incompatible digital music formats] by buying the overpriced and over regulated media."

      Another good reason to buy PHONOGRAPH RECORDS! Yes, many things still appear on vinyl if you are willing to search them out. And vinyl will still be playable eons from now (just as it was eons ago). Dump digital NOW before there are NO choices left for ANYBODY...including you so-called audiophiles at Ziff.
      dmennie
  • The nightmare is over for some of us.

    I'm 55 and don't like most modern music. Hence, I used the original Napster client to acquire most of the core oldies music I like and now use Filetopia, LimeWire, or AllofMP3.com to fill in the few remaining gaps in that collection.

    But, this raises an interesting question for others in my age bracket who prefer the same music era. Most of the strictly legit services out there cater to the hip-hop and pop crowd. And yet, baby-boomers want their music, too, and comprise a powerful market force that is being totally ignored (for the most part) by digital music providers. I'd be willing to bet that the first digital music provider to offer a niche music service to baby-boomers will make a fortune ... assuming they can acquire the licenses needed to offer the music legally.
    AlecWest
  • Re: The DRM nightmare: Not only does it get worse, it recurs

    You know that your DRM issues aren't technology issues, right? The technology issue would be trivial to address.

    Your DRM issues are legal issues. Don't blame Apple or MS or Real. They don't make the law.

    How about a blog on the real culprit here: Congress?



    :)
    none none
  • try mp3tunes.com

    the more folks buy from it, the better the music will get. They give a really good deal to the artists, so if you're an artist, get your music on there (via cdbaby i think), and you could make a bundle really fast.

    mp3tunes doesn't use DRM.
    hipparchus2000
  • HMZ

    BULLSHIT.#

    It is TOTAL BULLSHIT>

    Because. easy.
    guess how ?

    I can break this system in seconds.
    UZZI