The online music rip-off

As a result, anyone who purchased music in the past through Napster or MSN and then bought a Zune would be unable to play a portion of their music library on their new toy without first burning all the tracks to CD, then ripping those tracks into a Zune-friendly format, with the attendant loss in quality. It says a lot about the online music industry that anyone thinks this is acceptable.

DRM nightmares

Still, you might think, even if I can’t play my old tracks on my shiny new music player, I can at least guarantee that they’ll play on my computer. Wrong again. DRM-enabled tracks need a licence key to work, and if the software or hardware can’t find one, playback is out of the question.

In March, Sony closed its Connect music service in the US and Europe, promising that customers could continue to enjoy music they’d purchased in Sony’s DRM-enabled stores, but only on their existing music players and their “current PC configuration in accordance with our terms of use”. So if you bought tracks from Sony a few years ago, and next year your hard disk implodes or your DRM files become corrupted, even if you sensibly back up your files in the interim, you’ll still lose your music. Why? Because the licence servers will no longer be there to retrieve the licence keys for your tracks and authorise your computer to play them. The suggested workaround? The old burn-and-rip routine we just outlined.

Microsoft recently threatened to do the same thing, saying it would shut down the licence servers for the MSN Music store on 31 August, before a public outcry forced the software giant to extend that deadline to the end of 2011.

Even if your favoured store’s authentication servers are still live, there’s no guarantee of hassle-free playback. It’s in the nature of DRM – inevitably a complex system involving encryption and the transferral of keys between company servers and private computers – that things can and will go wrong. Uninstalling software, changing a processor, swapping hard disks or using clean-up utilities or Registry sweepers can all affect DRM keys on your PC. Even Apple admits in its online support area that “in some cases, iTunes may ‘forget’ that your music is authorised”.

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When the files are DRM-protected WMA files, these issues might not only affect files from one store, but several. Earlier versions of Windows Media Player included a licence-backup option, which allowed you to keep a safe copy of your licences and restore them should you need to. However, the stores weren’t bound to support this, and in Windows Media Player 11 the feature was removed altogether. If a file refuses to play, the application now requests a new licence from the original store. PC Pro’s own David Fearon recently recounted how it took him 29 steps to try to re-enable an album he bought from Napster – and he ultimately failed (see www.pcpro.co.uk/links/167music1). You don’t get this kind of hassle with CDs.

The music stores make it easy to buy music, and to the user it seems like you just pay the money, download the track and play it. Behind the scenes, however, the authentication process means that unless you carefully track the number of computers you’ve accessed a library on, back up your DRM keys and make a note of any passwords, you could be left with a series of dud files years down the line.

Money for nothing?

Matters grow even more complex when you factor in subscription services, such as Rhapsody in the US or Napster in the UK. Napster does at least make it clear that, in subscribing to and downloading from the service, you’re not actually buying tracks unless you specifically purchase them. In the words of Napster’s UK marketing manager, Dan Nash, the users are “in effect, renting them”. All the same, it isn’t hard to understand why users become annoyed when, having paid £15 per month, they lose all rights to the music the moment they cancel that subscription.

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