The perils of DRM

September 27, 2008

I recently stumbled across this post that discusses Wal*Mart’s decision to disable their DRM server(s). This effectively leaves any of the customers who bought DRM protected music from Wal*Mart high and dry. So much for trusting your access to your music collection to a large corporation.

I had a similar experience with Apple and iTunes. A few years ago, I decided to abandon Windows and started using Ubuntu as my primary operating system both at home and at work. A short 6 months earlier, or so, I had bought an iPod and had been using iTunes to manage my music library–a library which consisted primarily of mp3’s that I’d ripped from my extensive catalog of CD’s, but also about a dozen albums which I’d purchased through iTunes and which were encumbered with Apple’s DRM.

In their infinite wisdom, Apple has continually refused to embrace the Linux community, and as such, iTunes is still not available for any version of Linux (and probably never will be). That left me in somewhat of a lurch. My legally purchased songs were now unplayable on my computer because I could not install iTunes and they would not play without it. The only place that I could still listen to my music was on my iPod.

That’s what you get for trying to do the right thing and buy music legally…more on that in a minute.

It turns out that there was/is some some software available (which I won’t mention here) that could use your iTunes DRM license to rip the the DRM encumbered music files (.m4p) to a non DRM’d format (.m4a). Now, all my LEGALLY purchased music was once again playable.

This experience with DRM, however, left a bad taste in my mouth. I now refuse to spend my hard earned greenbacks supporting corporations or artists who feel that it is in their best interests to make it as hard as possible for me to actually use something I’ve legally purchased from them.

I still firmly believe that the way to encourage consumers to legally purchase digital media is to make it easy and price it fairly. DRM is incompatible with the goal of increasing the adoption of legal distribution channels for digital media by consumers.

For the record, I’m not advocating the theft of music. I like to get paid for my work output and I’m sure that musicians (and the bloodsucking labels that represent them) do as well. I am, however, advocating that the music industry end the failed experiment with DRM and other copy prevention measures and join us in the 21st century.

In a move that was broadly cheered, Amazon launched it’s music download service in the fall of 2007. As with iTunes, songs can be purchased individually or as entire albums (often at a discount over the per song price). Album downloading is done via a browser plugin but individual songs can be downloaded normally. Unfortunately, at the initial release, only Windows and MacOS versions of the plugin were available. Proving that they aren’t inclined to give the middle finger to a growing proportion of their customer base, they released a Linux version of their downloader plugin a scant 6 months later.

I’ve used the Amazon mp3 download service extensively since its release. It’s easy, it works for Linux and best of all, the music isn’t encumbered with DRM. I strongly suggest that, if you want to continue to enjoy your music for years and avoid the headache that Wal*Mart customers are now facing, you put your support behind companies like Amazon and their DRM free music. Only when the market lets the digital content producers hear loud and clear that they won’t continue to support the DRM shenanigans will things start to change.

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