Jeremy's almost but not quite entirely moribund blog

Monday, April 18, 2005

The case of the disappearing music

If you purchase music today, do you expect to be able to listen to it five years from now?

If it's on a CD, certainly. (Assuming you take care of it, it doesn't get lost or stolen, and it isn't a Mission: Impossible self-destructing CD.)

But if it's purchased online? Not likely.

At the behest of the Recording Industry Association of America, any music you purchase online from an affiliated label will be encumbered with DRM (digital rights management) technology, which is basically intended to tether your music to the computer that downloaded it. There's nothing stopping you from copying the files you download, but they won't be playable anywhere else.

Most forms of DRM allow you to do a limited set of copying; for example, you can make one-way transfers to a compatible portable music player (not just any player; even one that supports the audio format won't work if it doesn't support the DRM), or you can burn the track to CD a limited number of times.

What if you get a new computer? You can back up and restore your licenses so that the DRM will let you play your music on the new machine.

Fair enough? It would be, except that you need permission from Big Brother every time you restore your license backups. According to Microsoft,
You can restore backup licenses a limited number of times for legitimate purposes. When you restore your licenses, your computer must be connected to the Internet. The Player sends a unique hardware ID to Microsoft that enables the company to track how many times you restore your licenses.


If you exceed the maximum number of restore attempts that are permitted, the Microsoft service will not process any further restore attempts. Microsoft does this to discourage unauthorized replication of protected media files.

It's nice that Microsoft gets to decide whether or not your continued listening to music you paid for is legitimate.

Well, they're just trying to prevent you from using license restoration as a loophole to allow you to share your music illegally, right? Maybe. But guess what the "maximum number of restore attempts" is. (Hint: it's less than three.)

You can restore your licenses on a maximum of two unique computers. If you replace hardware components in your computer or reinstall the operating system, Microsoft considers the changed computer to be a new unique computer.

Have you purchased music online? Do you anticipating upgrading your computer or reinstalling the operating system more than twice? You have spent real money on a disappearing product. Congratulations!

I own dozens of CDs, but the majority of them I've never listened to in a CD player. When I get a CD, the first thing I do is rip it to MP3 files and then put the original CD away in a closet for safekeeping. MP3 files are much more convenient for me--I can listen to whatever I'd like without looking for the disc, my CDs don't get scratched and worn, and I can take my whole collection on the road with me on only a couple of data CDs--significantly reducing clutter and eliminating the chance that my originals get lost, damaged, or stolen.

The RIAA's website
says "If you choose to take your own CDs and make copies for yourself on your computer or portable music player, that's great. It's your music and we want you to enjoy it at home, at work, in the car and on the jogging trail." But it's also the RIAA who is making sure you can't do most of those things with music purchased online.

I don't buy CDs anymore, in part because I now have two small children and no longer have the disposable income I once had, but also because I'm afraid that I won't be able to use them how I'd like. Many newer CDs are encumbered by copy protection technologies that prevent them from being read properly by computers, and that these discs are not always clearly labeled. I am not interested in purchasing such a disc, since the CDs I buy are read exclusively by my computer.

Buying individual tracks for under a dollar each at online music stores would be very attractive--if it weren't for DRM. I like to take my music with me to work or on the road, but DRM shackles me to a very limited number of PCs. I know I could back up and then restore my licenses to my laptop and work machine, but at that point I've used up my licenses. As soon as any of those machines are reinstalled or upgraded, poof--there goes my music on that computer. I am not interested in spending real money on disappearing music.

I don't practice or condone online piracy, but pirated music has one enormous advantage over purchased music--free of DRM, it can be listened to on practically any device. It won't disappear when you upgrade your computer.

The RIAA often whines about how hard it is to compete with free. They've got a point, but they're going about it all wrong. If they offered the ability to legitimately purchase something comparable in quality to what's being shared online, I think customers would gladly pay for it. I know I would. But instead, they offer music that is chained to an extremely limited number of computers, is artificially incompatible with your MP3 player, and that you likely won't be able to listen to at all in five years.

Note to RIAA: You are losing business specifically because of DRM. Allow your customers to purchase non-DRM-encrusted music online--That's how to keep honest people honest.


Here are some links to discussions on other harmful effects of DRM. FAQ
DRM is Not Protection From Piracy: Is Protection From Competition
License Revocation - It's kind of like piracy, only they're stealing from you
Fair Use and DRM from the Electronic Frontier Foundation


  • It's free as in freedom, not free as in beer. For all the money these corporations have to spend on analysts and studies, you'd think they would understand that by now.

    I personally would never buy digital content unless it was lossless. No sense paying for part of a song.

    By Anonymous Heliologue, at 8:53 AM  

  • I don't have a problem with purchasing tv shows from Itunes that I can watch later on my video Ipod, but I definately have a problem with purchasing music that has DRM copy protection on it. I am proud to say that all of the music in my collection are either regular MP3 files or the unprotected M4A format.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:57 AM  

  • Sometimes you don't even need to change your hardware for MS to think you're on a new computer. I once changed the hyperthreading setting in my BIOS. Windows then thought I had one processor rather than two; so it thought I had a new machine and it then reauthorized my licenses.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:50 AM  

  • "I am proud to say that all of the music in my collection are either regular MP3 files or the unprotected M4A format."

    So you are PROUD of the fact that you support Fraunhofer's extortion schemes?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:43 AM  

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