Will the Music Industry Change Its DRM Tune?

Yesterday, Steve Jobs joined most of the public in calling for an end to DRM (Digital Rights Management) for music files. Aside from a fair bit of self serving statements in his "Thoughts on Music" (see below), I think it's great that Jobs has brought the subject to the mass media's attention. Will Microsoft weigh in on this debate?

If you live in a cave, don't use your Windows Mobile device as a music player, or are one of the three people under 30 that doesn't own an iPod, then you might not be aware of this issue. In a nutshell, in order to "prevent" piracy, the music industry requires downloadable music files to be encoded with a key that limits how and where you can copy the file. In practice, this DRM encoding doesn't prevent any piracy and only makes it harder for honest people to use the media content that they paid for.

DRM doesn't just apply to music either. It's used for video and even electronic copies of books (known as eBooks.) The problems faced with DRM encoded music apply to other types of media as well.

Before I get into the solutions Jobs is suggesting, let's look at some of the problems.

Interchangeability: This is the issue that got Jobs to write his "Thoughts". Since each online media source, such as Apple's iTunes or Microsoft's Zune.net uses their own proprietary DRM system, songs purchased from one company can't be used on players from a different company. According to Jobs, the DRM encoded content only represents 3% of the total music on all the iPods world-wide and therefore this is not a big issue, since (by his figures) 97% of someone's music content does not have DRM encoding. Unfortunately, Jobs has fudged his numbers. It's based on the number of iPods and DRM iTunes sold and the total available space on all the iPods in the world. He doesn't account for the fact that a huge number of iPod owners have more than one iPod, therefore, each downloaded song is legally on more than one iPod. For a family with 3 iPods who replaced each once with one new model, that's closer to 20% of the total content that they paid for which can't be used on an MP3 player from anyone but Apple. Imagine if you wanted to buy a new CD player, but 20% of your CD collection could only be played on players from the same company as your old one. I don't think you'd be happy about that.

Lost Keys: DRM depends on identifying that the player is owned by the person that paid for the content. This is done by various means, but as one switches Internet service providers (getting a new email address), bank accounts, or replaces their computers over time, it can be difficult to prove you are the same person that bought the content in the first place. I had this happen to me: I had a subscription to a popular audio book service for Windows Mobile devices. For a variety of reasons, I didn't use the service for quite some time, but I continued to pay the monthly fee since I had a "grandfathered" account with a minimal fee. Recently, I wanted to get back to listening to the audio books. I tried to access my account, but I couldn't remember the user ID or password. I sent a request to the company for support, providing them my name and the fact that I had the bank account information that was being charged. I got one reply indicating that someone would get back to me, but nobody ever did. My solution was to refuse the credit card charges and therefore lose all the content I previously paid for. This would never happen with printed books and because of that, I will never purchase DRM content again.

Format Life Cycles: If you own a bunch of 8-track tapes from the 1970's then you know all about this one. Over time, technology moves on. For physical media, your old players don't stop working when the world abandons the format. Also, while 8-Track and consumer Betamax formats where relatively short lived, most media is supported long after it's no longer sold. You can certainly find record players even today - long after CDs replaced the format. DVD players are able to play your CDs today, and most likely for the foreseeable future. But the computer world moves at a much faster pace and we can't depend on the DRM formats used today to be compatible with players in the near future.

DRM Hardware Requirements: While not (yet) an issue for music, we are seeing this in video. If you want to watch certain DRM encoded videos on a computer with, for example Windows Vista, you must also have a monitor that supports DRM. Your older monitor won't work. The situation is becoming too complex for the average user who just wants to buy digital content and play it without having to understand and "manage" it all.

Finally, there's the fact that while DRM presents a hassle to the legitimate users of media content, it does nothing to prevent piracy. For example it's well known that you can "burn" your iTunes DRM content to audio CDs. Since these CDs don't support DRM, the music is now DRM free. From there, you can "rip" or copy the music back into MP3 format and it's now able to be copied to any player you want. It's simple, doesn't require any special "hacker" software or knowledge. So what's the point in creating the DRM encoding in the first place? There isn't any!

If course, there are those that think that Jobs is saying he would like to see the music industry allow DRM to go away for Apple's self interest. Apple is getting a lot of scrutiny, especially in Europe, about the fact that the company refuses to license other companies to produce music players with their "FairPlay" DRM system. By saying he would rather see the music producers allow them to sell the content without DRM - something he may feel is highly unlikely - he could simply be trying to deflect the debate away from Apple and to Sony BMG and Universal. That might very well be the case. Still, I'm glad the subject is coming to light.

If you want to learn more about how DRM is eroding the rights of the consumers, visit the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) page on the subject: http://www.eff.org/IP/DRM/

As far as copy protection and copyrights are concerned, they both fail from a publishers standpoint.

There are two basic categories of people that find ways around the copy protection.

1: Those that need to have backups and the ability to use the content on other devices.

2: Those that feel the challenge that any protection scheme must be defeated.

Back in the days of vinyl records and tapes, people would make copies onto cassette tapes. This activity which was freely performed by many including myself, but this did not prevent me from going out to purchase the originals first.

Record companies still earned record profits.

I feel that the true culprits are the record companies for demanding a large percentage of the profits and leaving the artist with a small percentage only. Thus many artists argue that it's their bread and butter that is being cut severely due to piracy when it is mainly from the small percentage they get from the record companies.

The cost to create copy protection schemes are very costly and only last days if not hours from the initial release date before it is broken by someone or some group.

If record companies released digital files with no copy protection, this would allow end users to freely make backups and transfer the files from one device to another. The number of illegal duplications will still exist with or without copy protection but with copy protection it just makes it a more profitable venture for these illegal file duplicators.

If anyone can simply copy and share files, the need to pay for someone to create copies nolonger becomes a viable venture. Also, in Canada we pay a small tax build into the purchase price of blank tapes and blank CD's to benefit the recording industry anyways.

Most people are honest and will pay 99 cents or whatever is charged for the original file as long as you are guaranteed the highest level of recording quality in return. This is evident by the success of apple iTunes and other commercial music download sites.

Many free illegal downloads are not of any great quality and to find one online among thousands of similar downloads is too time consuming in the end.

Easier to just pay the small charge for that one favorite song. I hope we completely do away with shelf protection schemes altogether.

This applies to all copywritten materials and creating way to protect the material from duplication is just a waste of money and time for all concerned.

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