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Let's have a non-MP3 boycott--and bash the copyright barons

Are you tired of the big bullies telling you where and when you can listen to downloaded music? Let's send a message. Don't shell out your cash for tunes that don't arrive in MP3 or new MP3Pro formats. It's time to take a stand.

Want to force the record companies into line without having to resort to violence? Then don't buy music that doesn't arrive in MP3 or the new MP3Pro format. Why? Because those formats lack any kind of built-in anti-piracy mechanism.

If you choose only that technology, you'll be giving copyright owners the strong hint they need to become more customer-friendly if their e-music, e-book, and other e-content efforts are to succeed.

Regular readers will notice I am drawing a very fine line here. I am not recommending Napster-style wholesale piracy, though if you and a few--emphasis few---friends want to trade some tunes, that's fine by me. What concerns me is copy protection so tight that you can't really use the information as easily or as widely as you should.

This isn't a problem many people have run into yet, but as the record companies and their friends at Microsoft, Real, and others get into the commercial online music business, I'm expecting a big push to kill MP3. The music vendors will then duel with their proprietary formats, which include copy protection that can be used to keep you from installing your music onto multiple devices.

We're already seeing this with some content that can be downloaded but not loaded from the PC onto a portable player. Gone will be the days of downloading music and putting it onto every device you own as copyright holders try to nail down their music to prevent another Napster from springing up. In this case, nailing down means limiting how many machines you can install the content on.

I am not, as most people know, a big music downloader, though I am one of my local Tower Records' best customers. So while I am not speaking from tremendous experience downloading music, to give you an idea of Microsoft's thinking on the matter, let me share what happened recently while I was installing Microsoft Reader.

If you aren't familiar with Reader--hardly anyone is--this is Microsoft's play into the e-book space, competing primarily with Adobe. I am still undecided on the worthiness of e-books, but I can already tell you Microsoft's idea of rights management sucks.

The theory: two's company, three's a violation. As you know, I have too many computers. But I never know which one I will be using, so I always install the same applications on several computers. Recently, I was attempting to download a book from Amazon.com and the most amazing thing happened.

This isn't about the book itself, but the Reader software required to open the book. I downloaded the software and started the install, which went fine until I was asked to log into Microsoft's Passport user authentication service to "authorize" my copy of the Reader software.

Lo and behold, up pops an error message telling me that I can't have more than two copies of Reader attached to a single Passport account---meaning my digital library can't be shared on more than two machines either, apparently. Microsoft didn't offer to tell me which of my other machines I had Reader on (so I could deactivate it, if that's possible) or allow me to use the book only while I was actually logged on to Passport.

What I think Microsoft is telling me here is this: They don't want me to have just one Passport account, which seems odd. Or maybe Microsoft doesn't want people to own more than two computers, which I know isn't true. Or maybe Microsoft is both a pig and spineless when it comes to dealing with rights issues?

A pig in the sense that we already know Microsoft's End-User License Agreement limits customers to two installs of a particular product, disregarding the needs of people who have multiple computers but use only one at a time. That should be allowed under the agreement, but isn't.

Microsoft is spineless in the sense that when I called to bitch at one of their PR people, I was told that Microsoft was acceding to the publisher's demands for tight controls over their content. When was the last time you heard of Microsoft doing much acceding to anybody?

So that's it: Microsoft is a pig and spineless in dealing with rights issues. But they aren't the only ones. And since music is the big market for downloadable content, it's the best place to make a stand.

And you'll do that by boycotting music formats that include copy protection until it becomes absolutely clear that we'll be able to make fair use of what we buy--and that means copying it to all our machines.

MP3 won't live forever--no format does--but is remains a powerful force on the side of music consumers. And as for e-books: I won't be buying any more until I can use them as I please.