The DRM Virus Is Spreading – A Pandemic May Be Near

Last week we were startled to learn about Zune’s viral DRM system. As it turns out, the whole thing may have been a miscommunication on the part of Microsoft’s Zune Insider. But that doesn’t mean that Zune isn’t responsible for spreading the DRM virus. On the contrary, there’s mounting evidence that Zune is directly responsible for a mutation of the virus.

With the release of Zune, Microsoft has intentionally turned its back on its previous DRM standard – the PlaysForSure system. As a result, PlaysForSure partners are starting to drop support for Microsoft’s old DRM system in favor of their own proprietary DRM systems.

On Monday Real Networks and SanDisk announced that the Rhapsody music service will be switching from PlaysForSure to Real’s own Rhapsody DNA system. In an attempt to emulate Apple’s iTunes/iPod experience, SanDisk will release a new player that will be tightly integrated with the Rhapsody music service. The move is designed to position both companies against the upcoming Zune Marketplace as well as iTunes.

But wait, there’s more: Industry analysts are reporting that Napster is failing fast, and may be up for sale. Creative is being named as a possible buyer. If that happens it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Creative take the same approach Rhaspody and SanDisk have by creating yet another proprietary DRM system.

Just what the world needs, more incompatible standards for digital music. Can there be any doubt that we’re headed for a DRM pandemic?

This is a virus that kills consumer rights.

I may be dating myself with this one, but I remember a day when I could buy an LP, cassette, or CD without having to worry about what hardware I was going to play the music on. Now it appears we’re entering an era where consumers are being asked to pick a brand and lock themselves in for the long run.

As a consumer I’m reluctant to buy digital music from any of these marketplaces – there’s no telling what DRM system is coming next, or when any one of these vendors will abandon their current system for “strategic” reasons. Just a few months ago it would have been unthinkable to suggest that Microsoft would orphan PlaysForSure. In fact, Microsoft still denies they’ve abandoned the system. Obviously their partners think otherwise.

There’s a reason why France and Scandinavian countries have agitating to require DRM manufacturers to open up their technology. Consumers should have the right to play digital music on the player of their choice.

Contrary to what many believe, DRM is not a requirement for a successful digital music ecosystem. eMusic, the number two music download service behind iTunes, has never sold DRM restricted music. Then there’s the fact that DRM does more to restrict fair use than it does to prevent actually piracy. It should also be noted that CD’s are technically digital music. The recording industry sells hundreds of millions of CD’s a year, and very few of those have DRM.

All of these competing DRM systems wouldn’t be such a big problem if consumers could protect themselves against planned obsolescence and the whims of the tech companies that are launching these incompatible DRM systems and music stores.

All of the issues noted above could be minimized if the following were permissible:

  • Consumers had the ability to freely convert digital music from one restricted format to another.
  • Vendors had the ability to reverse engineer DRM in order to add support for multiple DRM systems to their players.

Unfortunately the DMCA effectively outlaws any possibility that either of these things will ever happen. As the EFF recently noted:

The real culprit here is the DMCA — but for that bad law, customers could legally convert DRMed files into whatever format they want, and tech creators would be free to reverse engineer the DRM to create compatible devices. Even though those acts have traditionally been and still are non-infringing, the DMCA makes them illegal and stifles fair use, innovation, and competition.

In the meantime consumers would be well advised to avoid all DRM’d music until this situation is resolved and consumers have guaranteed rights. Buy whatever player you like, but just say no to DRM’d music downloads.

11 Responses to “The DRM Virus Is Spreading – A Pandemic May Be Near”

  1. Jim says:

    And I firmly believe that the only reason that iTunes is #1 isn’t so much the iPod — though that obviously helps — but the fact that they allow savvy users to free their music from the DRM shackles they impose with with each purchase.

    Which is why I’ve never been remotely interested in Napster, Rhapsody, etc.

    And one of the reasons I still purchase CDs.

  2. Serge Lafont says:

    I guess this means more business for the Russian Federation and their countless online MP3 downloading services.

  3. Adam says:

    Kirk,

    Excellent article. It IS certainly alarming to see the fracturing of DRM. DRM is bad enough in itself, but to see it become essentially a multi-headed hydra… ack!

    But Jim… what’s up with perpetuating the iTunes-benefit myth? It’s no easier to “magically” de-DRM iTMS tracks (read: burn purchased track to CD, then rip) than it is to do so for Plays-for-sure DRM’d stuff.

    It continues to crack me up how iTMS fans still brag about how their chosen option is so much more open than the other DRM’d stores. Hooey. You own the tracks you download not one-whit more than you do if you had bought from Napster or Rhapsody, etc.

    Up with eMusic and Magnatunes! May they live long and prosper ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Jim says:

    Adam,

    I wouldn’t necessarily call mysef a “fan” of the iTunes music store. It’s more like an evil that at least know how to deal with, like using my DVR to fast-forward through commercials.

    My point here isn’t the ease, but the fact that at least it’s something I can do within the context of the service without breaking any laws. (I think.)

    I totally find it a pain the ass — and thank the gods for CD-RWs — but once I’ve ripped those files as mp3z, I can do whatever in the hell I want with them.

    So while I may not own the tracks I originally downloaded from iTunes any more than Napster & Rhapsody, I certainly own what I’ve ripped.

    I am a fan of eMusic. My only problem with eMusic is that there isn’t more stuff (yes, indie stuff) there.

  5. Paul says:

    I think the fracturing of DRM into many competing standards is exactly what the doctor ordered. The most likely outcome of this is either that iTunes wins, and becomes a de facto monopoly or that consumers wait on the sidelines for a winner to emerge, hurting both the hardware industry and the music industry.

    If the former happens, the music industry will step in and ask the government to loosen Apple’s stranglehold.
    Alternatively, in the second case, with consumers sitting on the sidelines, music sales continue to fall needlessly and eventually the music industry will capitulate or go crawling to Washington cap in hand, and ask for relief from what they have wrought in the DMCA.

    It will be a few years of misery, but eventually we’ll all be better off. Just like the battles over whether we could legally timeshift TV with videotape, and before that, whether radio could legally play recorded music. It’s all so silly – we just keep repeating history, and the industry keeps fighting progress only to realize years later that going with the flow in the first place would have allowed them to expand their markets quite profitably.

    In the mean time, artists may realize that the best way around this conundrum is to move en mass to CC licensing (that would be much easier if CC simplified the far-too-many license types down to just the few variations that are really needed), and make the music industry irrelevant.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Medialoper รƒโ€šร‚ยป The DRM Virus Is Spreading – A Pandemic May Be Near: well, the fact that I posted this is sort of a comment I guess. […]

  2. […] Apparently some people believe that the success of their future business models depend on keeping consumers in the dark about DRM. If you ask me, that’s a recipe for disaster. The sad truth of the matter is that DRM schemes are rarely seamless and almost never interoperable. The result is that consumer need to be increasingly aware of DRM limitations and compatibility issues when purchasing digital media or technology products. […]

  3. […] Platform lock-in. Thanks to proprietary and incompatible DRM systems almost all digital media products released by major studios require consumers to choose a platform and lock-in to the selected platform. If you buy an iPod you’ll be limiting yourself to iTunes. If you buy a Zune, then you’ll be limiting yourself to the Zune Marketplace. Would you buy a DVD player if you could only buy movies from Best Buy? Or a CD player if you could only buy music from Tower Records (if you did, you might be re-thinking your decision right about now). When you buy a CD or DVD you expect it to work across a broad range of devices, and for a very long time. There are no such guarantees in the digital realm. Consumers who bought into Microsoft’s PlaysForSure standard are about to be left behind when Zune is released. Who stands to benefit from these changing standards? Everyone but the consumer. […]

  4. […] Last week we were startled to learn about Zune’s viral DRM system. As it turns out, the whole thing may have been a miscommunication on the part of Microsoft’s Zune Insider. But that doesn’t mean that Zune isn’t responsible for spreading the DRM virus. On the contrary, there’s mounting evidence that Zune is directly responsible for a mutation of the virus. Full Story […]

  5. […] The DRM Virus Is Spreading – A Pandemic May Be Near […]

  6. […] lock-in. Thanks to proprietary and incompatible DRM systems almost all digital media products released by major studios require consumers to choose a platform […]