The online music rip-off

Take yourself back to the days when everyone bought only CDs. Imagine what you’d have thought of a store that sold discs that might work on your CD player now, but weren’t guaranteed to work on next year’s models. Imagine that some required you to phone the music store on a regular basis to reassure them that you were the legitimate owner, and were that store to go under, all the CDs you bought from it would one day cease playing. And once you started buying music from this store, you found yourself locked into a system that discouraged you from buying from a rival store down the street. Why, you might think, would you have bought anything from a place like that? Well, if you’re like millions of people in the UK, there’s a strong chance you already have.

How to get free music

It’s now four years since the iTunes store launched in the UK, and only now are we beginning to understand the full implications of buying music online. With vinyl or CD you knew where you stood: you bought the album or the single and, provided nobody lost, stole or scratched it, your music would still play in ten years’ time. In the digital download age, however, that can’t be taken for granted.

Digital rights management (DRM) has been a disaster. In December 2006, Bill Gates said “DRM was not where it should be”, admitting that it “causes too much pain for legitimate buyers”. By February 2007, Apple’s Steve Jobs was in agreement: “DRM hasn’t worked, and may never work to halt music piracy,” he noted in an essay. Yet, even though consumers hate it and many industry insiders admit it doesn’t do its job, DRM remains a major part of the online music buying experience.

Pirate-proof?

Why is DRM so contentious? Surely it’s designed to protect the rights of artists and record companies in a climate where, as one international music industry body claims, illegal downloads swamp legitimate music store downloads by a ratio of 20 to 1? The problem is DRM doesn’t affect the pirates, who upload and download DRM-free files often ripped directly from CD. Instead, it affects legitimate buyers in a range of deeply irritating ways.

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The first roadblock comes down to Gates’ talk of “simplicity” and “interoperability”, or rather the lack of both. The online music industry has evolved so that, while there are open file format standards – notably MP3 – the major companies have so far preferred proprietary or licensed file formats protected by DRM systems. For instance, the biggest online music retailer, Apple’s iTunes store, sells music in a proprietary, rights-managed form of the AAC codec that incorporates its FairPlay DRM. Bar a few Motorola mobile phones, these files will only play back on Apple’s own iPod devices. iPods, meanwhile, are unable to play the WMA files sold by many rival online music stores. The effect is to trap iPod and iTunes users into what some have called a vertical monopoly. If you buy the world’s most popular music player, you buy your music from the iTunes store. It works for Apple, but does it work for us?

If this is the sort of practice you’d normally expect from Microsoft, then don’t worry – the Redmond boys are at it, too. Having spent four years building up a certification and DRM system, PlaysForSure, Microsoft decided to ignore it entirely when it came to its own Zune device. Instead, it swapped interoperability for an iTunes-style vertical monopoly. While the Zune will play MP3 and unprotected AAC and WMA files, it won’t play DRM-enabled WMA files, including those purchased from Microsoft’s own, now defunct, MSN Music service. Now, Zune owners are encouraged to buy tracks from Microsoft’s Zune Marketplace.

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