The Customer Is Always Wrong: A User's Guide to DRM in Online Music

A few alternatives

If you want to purchase music online without DRM, check out these
services offering MP3s:

emusic

Audio Lunchbox
Bleep
Live Downloads
Magnatune
Garageband
Archive.org/Audio
Calabash Music
MP3Tunes

There is an increasing variety of options for purchasing music online, but also a growing thicket of confusing usage restrictions. You may be getting much less than the services promise.

Many digital music services employ digital rights management (DRM)
— also known as "copy protection" — that prevents you
from doing things like using the portable player of your choice or
creating remixes. Forget about breaking the DRM to make traditional uses like CD burning and so forth. Breaking the DRM or distributing the tools to break DRM may expose you to liability under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) even if you're not making any illegal uses.

In other words, in this brave new world of "authorized music
services," law-abiding music fans often get less for their money than
they did in the old world of CDs (or at least, the world before record
companies started crippling CDs with DRM, too). Unfortunately, in an effort to attract customers, these music services try to obscure the restrictions they impose on you with clever marketing.

This guide "translates" the marketing messages by the major services, giving you the real deal rather than spin. Understanding how DRM and the DMCA pose a danger to your rights will help you to make fully informed purchasing decisions. Before buying DRM-crippled music from any service, you should consider the following examples and be sure to understand how the service might limit your ability to make lawful use of the music you purchase.

Apple iTunes Music Store Says...

iTunes Music Store
"Own it Forever and a Day"

ITunes Store
"Just 99 Cents, Plus Generous Personal Use Rights"

The Facts: You Bought It, But They Still Own It

Imagine if Tower Records sold you a CD, but then, a few months later, knocked on your door and replaced the CD with one that you can't play in your car. Would you still feel like you "owned" the CD? Not so much, eh?

But Apple reserves the right to change at any time what you can do with the music you purchase at the iTunes Music Store. For instance, in April 2004, Apple decided to modify the DRM so people could burn the same playlist only 7 times, down from 10. How much further will the service restrict your ability to make legal personal copies of your own music? Only Apple knows.

Another hallmark of ownership is the right to give away or sell your
property. That's called "first sale," and it's explicitly protected
under copyright law. Yet Apple's DRM frustrates first sale—just
ask http://george.hotelling.net/90percent/geekery/impractical.php">George Hotelling, who had to give away the login and password to his iTunes Music Store account in order to resell a single song.

As the table below shows, there are many other ways that Apple's DRM limits what you can do with a song you "own." Many other a la carte download services choose to impose similar restrictions. How "generous" of them.

Additional iTunes Music Store Restrictions
  • Restricts back-up copies: Song can only be copied to 5 computers
  • Restricts converting to other formats: Songs only sold in AAC with Apple DRM
  • Limits portable player compatibility: iPod and other Apple devices only
  • No remixing: Cannot edit, excerpt, or otherwise sample songs

Update: EMI Licenses Apple to Offer DRM-Free Music April 2, 2007

Microsoft Touts...

The "Plays for Sure" labeling for Windows Media Audio DRM compatibility:

Microsoft
"Choose Your Music. Choose Your Device. Know It's Going to Work"

Microsoft
"Match logos ... [it's] no hassle."

The Facts: With DRM, Nothing Truly "Plays for Sure"

Your investment in CDs has paid all kinds of dividends over time because third parties could freely enable novel uses, like ripping MP3s or creating your own ringtones. But when you buy DRM-crippled music, you're locked into the limited array of software and devices that DRM vendors say you can use.

Many online music stores offer songs wrapped in Microsoft's Windows Media Audio (WMA) DRM, but not every device supports this format. You have to check for the "Plays for Sure" label, and, even then, only a few media players support "subscription" WMA content, like songs offered through Napster To Go. Not exactly hassle-free.

Microsoft's campaign is meant to make you comfortable with its limited universe of compatible products. But what happens if you later want to switch to a WMA-incompatible iPod, or a superior device that Microsoft won't license? You'll have to rebuy your music collection. Unlike MP3s, you can't easily convert DRM-crippled music to a different format. Likewise, if you switch music stores, you might have to buy a new set of compatible devices. And if the time comes that stores and devices no longer support your DRM, you're entirely out of luck.

Update: Microsoft's Zune Portable Player Incompatible With "Plays For Sure" Content September 15, 2006

RealNetworks Advertises...

Real Networks
"'Freedom of Music Choice' ... to help consumers break the chains that tie their music devices to proprietary music downloads."

The Facts: RealNetworks Doesn't Offer Real Freedom of Choice

RealNetworks pitched a fit because songs sold at the Real Music Store could not be transferred to Apple's iPod. Real's "Freedom of Choice" campaign says that consumers should be able to play their music using the device of their choice.

That's what you want, but it's not what you'll get from Real or any other service that sells songs wrapped in DRM. Real's customers are chained to the narrow set of software and devices licensed to unlock Real's proprietary DRM or Microsoft's Windows Media Audio (WMA) DRM. Want to stream music throughout your home with Creative's Sound Blaster Wireless Music? Too bad. Can't do it with music from Real.

Your CD collection has become more valuable over time because third parties could freely enable new uses, like ripping MP3s or creating your own ringtones. That's not the case with music you buy from Real. Even if you own devices compatible with Real's DRM or WMA today, what happens tomorrow when you want to buy a superior device that Real or Microsoft won't license? You'll have to rebuy all your music in a compatible format. Unlike MP3s, DRM-crippled music can't easily be converted to other formats.

Or what if Real someday gives up the digital music business and its formats go unsupported in all devices? The CDs you bought 10 years ago still play in every CD player you can buy today, but you might not be able to say the same about Real's music.

Additional Real Music Store Restrictions
  • Restricts back-up copies: Song can only be copied to 5 computers
  • Limits audio CD burning: Same album or playlist can only be burned 5 times
  • No reselling songs
  • No remixing: Cannot edit, excerpt, or otherwise sample songs
  • DRM restrictions can change: "DRMs may be able to revoke your ability to use a Download — if you violate the usage rules associated with Downloads." "Real may modify this Agreement [which sets out the usage rules] at any time in its sole discretion."

Napster 2.0 Promises...

Napster
"All the Music You Want. Any Way You Want It."

The Facts: Music "Any Way You Want It" — So Long As You Pay for It Over and Over Again

Napster 2.0 and many services like it provide celestial music jukeboxes, but you'd better bring a sack of quarters. Using DRM, they charge extra for many traditionally free uses of your music.

For a monthly subscription fee, the Napster Unlimited music rental service offers you the ability to stream and download as much as you like from its entire catalog. If you miss a monthly payment, the DRM renders the downloaded music unplayable.

Even while your subscription lasts, however, the DRM ensures that you don't get to use the music "any way you want." Want to move your music to a portable player? That'll be an extra five bucks per month for Napster To Go — and you'll still only be able to play it using software or devices licensed to play WMA-protected subscription content, which excludes the iPod and most other portable players. How about burning a song to CD? Napster's DRM requires you to cough up 99 cents more. What if you want to copy music to more than three computers? Pay another monthly subscription fee, or 99 cents per song. And what if you want to mix a song snippet with a home movie? Forget it—the DRM forbids that entirely.

Explaining Napster Restrictions

Napster 2.0 is divided up into three services. They all share one
thing: complicated, restrictive DRM.

Napster Light
(a la carte purchasing, permanent "ownership" service)
  • Restricts back-up copies: Song can only be copied to 3 computers
  • Limits audio CD burning: Same playlist can only be burned 7 times
  • Limits portable player compatibility: Only protected WMA devices;
    excludes iPod
Napster Unlimited

(tethered download "rental" service)

  • Restricted rentals: Songs do not function if subscription lapses
  • Restricts use on multiple computers: Song can only be copied to 3 computers
  • No audio CD burning
  • No portable player compatibility
Napster To Go
(portable subscription "rental" service)
  • Limits portable player compatibility: Only devices that can play "portable subscription" secure WMA; excludes iPod
  • Restricts use on multiple portable players: Content can only be
    used on 2 devices at a time.
  • Restricted rentals: Songs do not function if subscription lapses
  • Restricts use on multiple computers: Song can only be copied to 3 computers
  • No audio CD burning

All three Napster offerings:

  • Restrict converting formats: Songs only available in protected WMA
  • No reselling songs
  • No remixing: Cannot edit, excerpt, or otherwise sample songs
  • DRM restrictions can change: "Napster reserves the rights to modify the Usage Rules at any time"

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