What is DRM for?

What is DRM for?

Beatport SYNCI recently started using Beatport SYNC on my MacBook, as I like the basic DJ features (I am the DJ king of my living room!), and find it a more enjoyable way to listen to music than using iTunes. I was completely happy until I tried to play the tracks I had bought through the iTunes store; they are protected with Apple’s FairPlay DRM (Digital Rights Management) system and won’t work outside iTunes. That irritated me.

I could have downloaded these tracks illegally and been free to listen to the music as I wanted, but because I had actually bought the tracks I couldn’t. Rob Fayer at gamesindustry.biz, makes a similar complaint, calling DRM “hated and broken”. The point of DRM is to curb piracy but it punishes the paying customer while having no discernible effect on piracy.

Of course, there are programs to convert DRM protected files to MP3, but that also puts you in a legal grey area (more likely an illegal area). Fayer argues that as long as paid-for products are more annoying to use than the pirated versions, customers are almost being driven towards piracy. I think people would be more likely to download music legally if it was DRM free.

The recent legal fight between RealNetworks and movie studios highlights how out of touch the “creative industry” is; a world without RealDVD is not one without people ripping DVDs or downloading illegal BitTorrents. Copy protection doesn’t stop people copying, so it should be obvious another solution is needed.

iTunes does now offer some of its music DRM free, at a premium, and Napster also offers unprotected files. I hope this is the beginning of the end: shouldn’t we be trusted to use the things we buy legally? For now, I’ll stick to buying CDs and DRM free music.

April 7th 2010 Update:

Since I wrote that piece, most companies have ceased to use DRM, meaning files can now be freely used by users in whatever program or device they please. However as Michael Arrington at TechCrunch highlights, some companies are still adding data to files that could be used to control usage.

These so called “dirty” MP3s have meta data added to them, a personal watermark with the purchasers name embedded in it. Apple do this with iTunes purchases, meaning any song you buy from them will have your name digitally stamped in it. This doesn’t do anything now, unless you are illegally sharing song, but could have implications in the future. According to Arrington, this digital stamping could be used to control who uses your files.

Whatever the music industry is trying to achieve with all this, luckily not all music sites are applying this kind of security. There’s a list of which sites sell “dirty” MP3s here, so you can make an informed choice about the music you buy.

Since the popularization of the cassette in the 70s, record companies have claimed music sharing threatens their existence, but they have always survived. I hope these continued efforts to control use of music customers have bought eventually fail: As mentioned in the article, you would be surprised if a book or a car was sold to you with your name permanently stamped into it, and we shouldn’t have to accept it with music.

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