Analysis: Hitting the wrong note

When iTunes launched in the UK last year, the music download service promised to deliver the record industry from the evils of the file-sharing pirates and offer consumers an exciting new way to buy singles and albums.

Although legal downloads jumped by 900 per cent in 2004, according to the industry body IFPI (International Federation of the Phonographic Industry), and has a global value that Jupiter Research puts at more than £200 million, downloading remains a drop in the ocean compared to the overall music market. What, experts are asking, is holding it back?

The prime cause for consternation among many consumers stems from digital rights management (DRM). ‘I recently bought five albums from Napster and couldn’t get them to work,’ said Sean Prior, a 34-year-old music fan from Croydon. ‘Eventually, I got them to play – the licences were in the wrong place and I had to download them again – but it’s much too hard. I’ve also bought tracks from another store, but you can download them to only one computer; when I had my laptop stolen, I lost the tracks I’d paid for.’

The number of machines you can download to varies between stores, as do the portable players you’re able to use, and whether you’re allowed to make a backup CD. Consumers no longer own the tracks they’ve paid for.

‘Digital music sales make up less than 2 per cent of the total music business, because many consumers know they aren’t really buying the music – they’re renting it from a big corporation that controls what software, computer and portable devices they can use,’ said Michael Robertson, who recently launched the DRM-free MP3tunes.com.

Songs, he said, should be ‘permanently stored in a customer’s music locker, so they never lose the music they paid for.’

Such is the furore surrounding the restrictions placed on downloads that two of the biggest players, Apple and Sony, face court action in Europe over the alleged anti-competitive practice that ties music downloaded from their sites to their music players.

What’s even more frustrating for anyone that falls foul of DRM is that it simply doesn’t work. Although the music industry admits DRM is only a ‘speedbump’ to stop casual copying, anyone can break the locks imposed on music – because unlike most encryption, the attacker must be given the ‘key’ in order to play their music.

‘DRM systems are usually broken in minutes, sometimes days and rarely months. It’s not because the people who think them up are stupid, or that those that crack them are smart,’ said Cory Doctorow, a lawyer with the rights campaign group Electronic Frontier Foundation. ‘There isn’t even a problem with the algorithms.’

‘All DRM systems share a common vulnerability: they provide attackers (in this case customers) with the ciphertext, the cipher and the key. At this point, it isn’t a secret any more.’

Napster’s new unlimited download mobile service is a case in point. Just days after the £15-per-month rent-a-tune download service was launched, users realised that by using Winamp software they could capture streams of music they had downloaded from the Napster site and store it permanently with no DRM.

The supposed restrictions imposed by the download companies are only half the story, however. The price and the quality of products are also keeping consumers’ credit cards in their pockets.

Anyone who takes their music seriously has doubts about the quality of music offered by download sites. The uncompressed files on a CD weigh in at between 500MB and 600MB. The encoding used for MP3 trims the file size of an album by 90 per cent. But for all the advances in compression technology, anyone with half an ear for music can detect the lack of depth in their songs.

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