Why I don’t like DRM

On the face of it, I don’t have anything against DRM (digital rights management, the technology that’s supposed to enable digital content that can only be viewed/listened to/etc. by the person who paid for it). All I really want to do is buy music over the Internet and listen to it the same way I did ten years ago with CDs and twenty years ago with cassette tapes–on my stereo, in my car, on my portable music players. If DRM is what makes the record labels finally comfortable with the idea of selling their wares over the Internet, I’m perfectly fine with that.

The problem is, in my experience, DRM hinders my ability–my ability, not the ability of some hypothetical downstream KaZaA user–to listen to the music I legitimately purchased. In all my life, I’ve never had a CD player or tape deck refuse to play music I legitimately purchased, but that seems to happen routinely with the DRM systems. Furthermore, there was only one standard for CDs and one standard for cassette tapes. In the digital world, not all content will play on all devices. Far from it.

I’d never really come face to face with DRM until recently because I’ve long been a subscriber of Rhapsody, the music service that, for $9.95 per month, allows you to play a staggering number of songs on your PC, streamed over the Internet at CD quality. Problem is, while I spend a big part of my day in front of a computer, I also spend significant amounts of time in cars, on airplanes, walking, and doing other things, and it’s a bit hard to stream over the Internet to these places just yet (though I predict the day will come eventually).

So, I finally broke down and got a portable music player, a Rio Karma, chosen specifically because I have no desire to climb inside the big box Apple is building–a big box that, ironically, so many of my peers in the open source community are gleefully hopping inside after railing for years against the big boxes Microsoft tries to build around them. But that’s another post.

Where do I get my music now that I want to listen to it untethered? I’m not sure yet. At first, I loyally tried Rhapsody’s CD burning feature, but after several failed burns that cost me twenty or thirty dollars, I started shopping around for another service. Besides, the idea of creating coasters every time I wanted to get music for my portable music player seemed pretty ridiculous in this day and age.

Next, I tried the new Napster, relaunched as a legitimate music service by Roxio in October 2003. Overall, I was initially impressed, though the selection of music available wasn’t nearly as good as Rhapsody. However, at some point, the DRM software suddenly decided I no longer had the appropriate rights to burn the tracks I had purchased. I could still transfer them to my Rio, but who knows when the DRM software would arbitrarily decide I could no longer do that too?

Then, to my great delight, Real launched its own music store based on Rhapsody, which means it has both a great interface and a great selection of songs. Furthermore, the music store is seamlessly integrated with RealPlayer 10, a very nice product in its own right in which even the usual RealNetworks kudzu-like behavior has been curtailed. With credit card in hand, I logged in, prepared to buy hundreds of dollars of music, and then.. And then..

And then I discovered Real was using some sort of weird AAC-based DRM file format that wouldn’t work on my Rio. (It won’t work on the iPod either, according to Real, so I’m not sure where it does work.) So, here I am, once again forced to create coasters to transfer music from the Real music store to my Rio (though, once again, I’m still trying to figure out how to do even that, as RealPlayer 10 is now refusing to burn CDs..)

In the end, I’ll probably just convert everything to MP3 format if I can manage to do it (creating ridiculous numbers of coasters in the process), and if I can’t, I won’t use the music service. Come on, music industry, I just want to give you piles of my money! See also: Kevin Laws: The Music Industry Tips…Over?.

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