The DRM grinch who stole Christmas

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.