Last week, Microsoft announced that it was leaving the paying customers of its MSN Music store out in the cold. Rob Bennett, the head of MSN Entertainment and Video Services, told customers in an email that “[a]s of August 31, 2008, we will no longer be able to support the retrieval of license keys for the songs you purchased from MSN Music or the authorization of additional computers."

In other words, the DRM copy protection that Microsoft and the major record labels insisted customers put up with has now drastically devalued that music -- at least for consumers who like to regularly upgrade their PCs. Come August 31st, if you buy a new computer, or even upgrade your OS, you’ll have to give up your MSN Music.

Bennett says the burden of managing its DRM servers and updating its code with every OS change created problems that were unmanageable. “We really feel, in the long term, what’s best for people who want to buy music from Microsoft is to move to Zune,” Bennett told CNET.

If Bennett is truly concerned with “what’s best for people,” he can start with ensuring that his customers can enjoy their legally purchased digital content on whatever machines they choose to use, on whatever OS or devices they have in the future. Indeed, if Microsoft doesn’t take immediate steps to provide that assurance, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to move to Zune and risk having their their digital content damaged the next time Microsoft decides its business interests require shutting down a music service.

“No one ever foresaw being in this situation,” Bennett told CNET. But if Microsoft had listened to consumer advocates and digital rights proponents, it might not have been so surprised to find that DRM is bound to cause problems. EFF Fellow Cory Doctorow gave a speech at Microsoft in 2004 in which he told executives:

There is no market demand for this "feature." None of your customers want you to make expensive modifications to your products that make backing up and restoring even harder. And there is no moment when your customers will be less forgiving than the moment that they are recovering from catastrophic technology failures.

EFF predicted that DRM-laden music could be rendered useless when companies stop supporting it in our paper “The Customer Is Always Wrong: A User’s Guide to DRM in Online Music”: “If the time comes that stores and devices no longer support your DRM, you're entirely out of luck.”

Among the many problems with DRM, its threat to musical longevity is one of the most insidious. Vinyl records created decades ago continue to play just fine, on whatever brand of player the music listener desires, thus insuring that our musical heritage is preserved for future generations. By making digital music rely on a license controlled by Microsoft or some other corporation, DRM makes it harder for us to share and preserve our history.

Of course, Microsoft is not entirely insensitive to the desire of its customers to hold on to their music. That’s why they’ve suggested that MSN Music customers strip the DRM from their music by burning it to CD, then re-importing it. The odd thing about this suggestion is that the more music you bought from Microsoft -- the more of a loyal customer you were -- the more time you are expected to spend sitting in front of your computer, burning discs and then re-importing them (degrading the sound quality in the process).

EFF is calling on Microsoft to do the right thing and ensure that their customers maintain their ability to enjoy the content they paid for. We’ve written an open letter to Microsoft demanding that they take steps to make things right with their customers, including issuing an apology, compensating MSN Music customers, and publicly committing to keeping Zune customers from being stuck in the same boat.

We’ll be watching to see how Microsoft responds. And meanwhile, we’ll continue to argue against DRM and other forms of content restriction that limit the rights of the public to access and control content they own.

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