Digital Music: Less Than Meets the Eye

The EEF, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization that works to protect individual and consumer rights relating to technology, has published a very interesting and useful Guide to DRM in Online Music.

DRM, or Digital Rights Management, is an umbrella term referring to any of several technical methods used to control or restrict the use of digital media content on electronic devices with such technologies installed. Stated another way, DRM is what prevents us from freely using the music we legally purchase from online music stores like iTunes, Rhapsody, MusicMatch, etc.

In its guide, the EEF examines the licenses and marketing language used by various online music stores to decipher what it means- to determine if you truly own the music you have purchased. The conclusion: not really. You have the right to use it, but you don’t own it in the traditional sense of the word and even your right to use the music can be further restricted after you buy it.

The guide analyzes iTunes, Microsoft, RealNetworks (makers of that bloatware and computer hogging Real Player program), Napster (the new establishment-supported and DRM restricted version, not the old version the RIAA killed).

Some lowlights:

iTunes can add additional restrictions to your ability to use a song, ever after you buy the song. iTunes also makes it hard to give away or sell a song you have bought (meaning sell without keeping a copy, much like if you sold a CD you own on eBay). It also limits your ability to convert the song to another format, which may be necessary to listen to the song on certain non-Apple MP3 players.

RealNetworks promises “freedom of choice” to use the songs on the music player of your choice, but the songs you buy are not compatible with all music players and can only be burned to a CD a limited number of times.

Napster charges extra for the right to put your songs on a portable player.

I decided to see how the music services I use stack up. I use MusicMatch, owned by Yahoo, and Rhapsody, sadly owned now by RealNetworks (I signed up when it was independent).

MusicMatch. I had to dig around the web site and within the MusicMatch Jukebox to find anything about DRM. But I am persistent and I found a few things. The downloaded tracks are encoded in secure WMA format. The cannot be transferred to an iPod, since the only secure format supported by the iPod is the AAC file format. MusicMatch has the Microsoft “playsforsure” logo, so I assume the restrictions are the same as the Microsoft downloads. I know only one thing for sure- and it’s a big thing. I just bought a copy of Delbert McClinton’s Down in Mexico and at no time did the system tell me that the music file I bought was restricted or the nature of such extensions. As mentioned above, looking around the site uncovered no summary of the restrictions. DRM should be invisible, but not in this way.

Rhapsody. Unlike most online music stores that sell downloadable song files, Rhapsody traditionally sold songs that you would burn to a CD from within the Rhapsody software itself. Not all songs could be burned onto a CD, but the ones that could burned to a CD ended up on a CD that, like regular music CDs could be ripped (i.e., transferred to your computer in digital format). The foregoing applies to Rhapsody version 2.1, which is the one on my computer. Apparently, there is now a version 3.0 that lets you buy digital copies of songs, but is full of DRM restrictions. I am going to cancel my Rhapsody subscription as soon as I finish this post.

The bottom line is that DRM protected song files are restricted, some less than others. The problem is that the casual buyer likely has no idea if and to what degree the songs he or she buys are restricted. As I’ve said before, I don’t pirate or share music, but I also don’t purchase songs that are crippled by DRM.

EFF Trivia: John Perry Barlow is one of the co-founders of the EFF. He also co-wrote the song that Cassidy is named after. Shortly after Cassidy was born, I emailed him a photo and short note, letting him know how much I love that song and telling him about Cassidy. He emailed Cassidy and welcomed her to the world, and he has emailed her a few times since then, just to check in. How absolutely cool is that? When Cassidy is older, that will mean a great deal to her.

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