Darn DRM, will our music ever be set free?

When it comes to buying digital music there’s nothing more frustrating then being locked in to a specific device or brand of software, i.e. Zune and Urge, Apples and iTunes, when it comes to playing and transferring the tracks you purchase.

There’s a ton of issues surrounding music DRM these days, and the subject begs a bit of pondering over its future.

In an era where CD sales continue to decline, and revenue from digital downloads doubled to some $2 billion USD last year, you’d think that the music labels would want to do everything in their power to facilitate a enjoyable digital music listening experience. Yet, what they repeatedly do is quite the opposite.

Time and time again they lock users into a specific music playing device, online store, or type of software with which to facilitate the purchase and transfer of songs to that device.

Why they do it? Well, the reason they do it is obvious, its to lock users into a specific brand. What they don’t realize however, is that if the goal of offering digital downloads in the first place is to curb online piracy, DRM encourages that very thing.

Is it any wonder that and estimated 80% of music on average iPod is pirated music?

Ashwin Navin, president and co-founder of BitTorrent Inc., called iTunes’ DRM policy “a time bomb waiting to happen,” and said the same may be true for Microsoft’s policy with Zune if the device becomes more popular.

Exactly, and I think the fuse has already been lit thanks to Microsoft’s new Zune player.

It has been recently reported that some 40% of songs cannot be shared using the much hyped Zune to Zune streaming feature.

Say what? 40%? That’s right. Again we see a consumer actually purchasing music content and then being told what he can and cannot do with it. Where’s the incentive? If the music labels are so adamant about combating piracy then why does it seem they do everything in their power to encourage it?

Universal, which demanded a cut from each Zune player sold to offset the alleged costs of piracy it may engender, has a number of artists listed in the so-called “Zune prohibited sharing list.” as does Sony.

Universal Music Group

  • Prohibited Zune Sharing: Gwen Stefani, Snow Patrol, Eminem, Blue October, JoJo, Jay-Z;

Sony Music

  • Prohibited Zune Sharing: Beyonce, Weird Al Yankovic (not sure if song is from Sony) and Ciara;

Even if you can share a song, the “3day/3play” policy still makes it an absolutely worthless feature. Microsoft, to its credit, realizes this yet, is seemingly powerless when it comes to the whims of music labels. They have the content after all, and so are able to dictate the rules, no matter how inane or misguided.

Navin also pointed out that “The lock-in you get from iTunes [or Zune] is great when you love the device you got from either one of those vendors but, if you don’t, the amount you’ve invested [in purchasing media files] is worthless.”

Again, exactly.

Why buy either if you’re sentenced to a perpetual marriage with the same online store and selection, or worse yet, to the same player with the same features and functions?

If a cool new portable portable music player comes out and you’d like to switch well, that would only make all the music you spent so much money on instantly worthless, and so you are essentially FORCED to hang onto the old one even if it’s outdated or no longer suits your lifestyle.

On the subject of music DRM, Bill Gates, Microsoft founder and resident oracle, noted in a sit-down conference with a handful of tech industry bloggers that he agrees that DRM is “not where it should be.”

Michael Arrington writes:

Gates said that no one is satisfied with the current state of DRM, which “causes too much pain for legitimate buyers” while trying to distinguish between legal and illegal uses. He says no one has done it right, yet. There are “huge problems” with DRM, he says, and “we need more flexible models, such as the ability to “buy an artist out for life” (not sure what he means). He also criticized DRM schemes that try to install intelligence in each copy so that it is device specific.

His short term advice: “People should just buy a cd and rip it. You are legal then.”

He ended by saying “DRM is not where it should be, but you won’t get me to say that there should be usage models and different payment models for usage. At the end of the day, incentive systems do make a difference, but we don’t have it right with incentives or interoperability.”

Did he say to “Buy a CD and rip it?” I love it.

The fact that when it comes to proven interoperability one cant rely on the standard of digital music that is offered today, illustrates just how much DRM negatively reinforces piracy or other alternative forms of digital music that are DRM free.

So what would happen if DRM was discontinued? Would the world end if DRM-free music was avail abel for purchase? Can’t be nay more harmful that “purchase-free” pirated music right?

Real Networks’ CEO Rob Glaser summed up the music business’ ambivalence towards DRM this weekend, calling for the removal of restrictions on digital music if it ever expects to succeed in its fight against online piracy.

“For purchases, move away from DRM,” he said, adding that only when they begin to offer DRM-free downloads can they over hope for digital downloads to overtake physical CD sales. “DRM should remain for customers who subscribe to a monthly download service and therefore don’t actually own the songs.”

I’d have to agree. Only when people feel like thy are actually buying something will they be more inclined to buy it.

iTunes, for instance, is the biggest joke in the world, and I still cant understand why people buy their music there. It only plays on devices and locations that Apple alone dictates, so why on Earth would you pay for something that Apple has taken such great lengths to limit your use of?

In an exchange at the recent MidermNet Fourm conference in Cannes, France, Consumer Electronics Association president Gary Shapiro traded barbs with RIAA chairman Mitch Bainwol, noting how DRM really is bad for business, and not just his but, for content providers as well.

Consumers have certain rights to move content around their home. DRM is clearly desired by components of the motion picture and music industries, but consumers have started to revolt against it and you’re beginning to hear it. It’s confusing and resented by consumers. Business models are emerging and major record labels are starting to pick up on this. [If you drop DRM], you’re taking a risk that unethical consumers will spread the content around the world but that’s a risk you’re going to have to take. … When the law penalizes so much, something is wrong and has to be changed. When consumers are afraid to do something for a school project because they’ve listened to the RIAA disinformation campaign, something is wrong. Consumers are rejecting DRM [because it’s confusing]. Independents and some major labels soon are going to be saying “no DRM on our products.”

In response, RIAA chairman Mitch Bainwol said the CEA president, because of his pleas to abandon restrictions and liberalize fair use policies, sometimes resembled “a fringe, ideological leader.”

We are in a very, very significant transition. Technology is the basis of our future. We have to be able to monetise product and, every time we try, you want to make it available for free so people can buy devices. Gary stretches the concept of fair use to the point where the notion of “fair” has been eliminated. You have to protect the market value. [Gary] wants to morph fair use into a concept that justifies any consumer behavior to the point where you eliminate the value of property. Kids grow up not understanding that music and movies are intellectual property. You teach disrespect for intellectual property. Gary takes a concept, morphs it, makes us look like we’re evil.

Shapiro, to his credit, countered, “I don’t make you look evil – your lawsuits against old people around the country make you look evil.”

I’m sure that last little jab left the audience speechless.

So what about the future of DRM? Will content providers ever recognize it’s pitfalls or will it be the capabilities provided by new technology and products that spur a change?

I think it will be the latter, and it seems I’m not alone.

Navin writes:

My friends, dont fret! we’re at the dawn of an entirely new product cycle that will be tens of billions of dollars in size. It already *is* tens of billions of dollars in size offline, and as the channel of distribution shifts online, the key stakeholders are going to be very cautious at the beginning. There will be a day however when entertainment executives will see DRM as a risk to their business… more people are getting tired of lugging around their CD and DVD collections, especially when their entire collection fits easily on a laptop. The entertainment industry is also one that fears lock-in even more than we do (as consumers). When platform companies exert their distribution control on content compies, the walls for lock-in (ie, DRM) will fall over like a bunch of Jim Jones followers drinking their last glass of bittersweet kool-aid.

When people see another person that can stream or play music wherever and whenever they want it’ll erode the desire they have for other platforms and devices, and thereby make them seek out alternatives.

As Navin put it so succinctly, “DRM is bad for artists, and its bad for consumers. Period.”