December 5, 2005 | By Fred von Lohmann

Beginning of the End for Music DRM

Real Networks today announced the availability of a web-based version of its Rhapsody music service. Finally, there is a listen-on-demand authorized music service with deep major label catalog that Mac and Linux users can use. I expect Napster 2.0 and Yahoo! will feel competitive pressure to migrate to a cross-platform, browser-based solution, as well.

What strikes me about this announcement is the implicit rejection of DRM that it represents. After all, while Real touts Rhapsody as primarily a "streaming" music service, everyone knows that it is trivial to turn a "stream" into a "download" by using widely available software tools. Audio Hijack, for example, records Rhapsody streams without any problem on my OS X machine. And everyone knows that Linux users will have new "stream-ripping" applications aimed at Rhapsody before you can say "DVD Jon." So it seems clear that Rhapsody has managed to talk its major label licensors into allowing them to concentrate on attracting customers, rather than shackling them in a misguided attempt to restrict the music that is already available on P2P networks for free.

That's a good sign. We've been saying for years now that the music industry needs to pay more attention to fattening the carrot, and less to brandishing the stick.

There have been other signs that the end for music DRM may be near. First, the Sony-BMG debacle has certainly made the labels reassess the value of DRM on CDs. Moreover, Apple allows its customers to bypass the FairPlay DRM by allowing iTunes Music Store customers to burn their purchases to unprotected CDs, which can then be ripped or duplicated without restriction. And all the major authorized music services appear to have spurned Microsoft's "Secure Audio Path" technology, which would have made the DRM shackles on Windows Media files that much tighter fitting.

At the same time, legitimate customers are piling up the complaints on DRM schemes that make it difficult to move music to iPods and create new failure modes for paying subscribers, all while doing nothing to prevent file sharing on P2P networks.

So here's to the eventual demise of DRM on digital music. Once the DRM is gone, we can see what a real, robust, competitive digital music marketplace looks like.

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