Spoutin' Off: DRMs are bad dreams to some

By Michael E. Rau

July 10, 2006

Those pesky French! They're they go again, trying to mess with the American way of life!

OK - That's a little over the top, and the truth is, I appreciate the sentiment which has lead them to take action.

What action, you ask? The French Parliament has passed a law which, more or less, requires distributors of digital downloads to make their products universally usable.

This law, while applying to any company which distributes such products, was really aimed at Apple and the iTunes Store, and specifically, their FairPlay digital rights management (DRM) scheme.

Anyone who uses the iTunes store is aware of the intention and ramifications of FairPlay. While songs downloaded from the iTunes store are encoded in the AAC format, which can theoretically be played by a number of devices and systems, Apple adds the FairPlay DRM which prevents songs downloaded from them to be played on any device or system but their own.

Now I don't know about you, but I personally don't want to buy a song which I can't play any way I dang well please. I don't want an "Apple Only" product. If I pay for the rights to consume a piece of intellectual property, I feel that license should give me the right to use the product as I see fit.

The argument in favor of DRMs is that they protect intellectual property rights, but I think that's a load of hooey. Really, any song or movie that you want can be obtained through that gray legal area of peer-to-peer file sharing.

Does Apple think that someone who is planning to illegally distribute an artistic product is going to go to the trouble of legally downloading it first? That makes no sense at all. They're just going to get it through BitTorrent or Gnutella or some other such file-sharing service.

Of course, it was Microsoft who first started pushing DRMs through Windows Media, and in fact they continue to push the envelope on limiting access (media encoded in Windows Media 10 will only play in Windows XP).

But now, Apple's moved to the forefront in this area because of the phenomenal success of the iTunes store.

Some analysts believe that DRMs are more a matter of companies trying to exert control over these products in such a way as to commit users to their proprietary applications and devices, rather than being due to any real concern about piracy.

I use iTunes on my Mac as my "jukebox" of choice - It's a great product - But I don't own an iPod and don't use the iTunes store. I never will as long as Apple chooses to limit my choices.

My favorite source for legal downloadable songs is called eMusic. For a monthly fee of $9.95, you can download up to 40 songs. These are encoded in mp3 with no DRM scheme whatsoever. Thus, they'll play in just about any digital music application or device, including iPods and iTunes (as well as Windows Media Player, RealPlayer, MusicMatch, and a slew of others).

Truthfully, AAC is a more efficient compression format and I'd prefer to acquire my songs encoded that way, but the difference is negligible - especially when the restrictions enabled by FairPlay are taken into consideration.

So did France take the best approach? I don't believe so. I don't think it's a government's role to step in when a company decides to adopt a stupid but avoidable policy.

What I'd like to see is consumers voluntarily choosing to not cater to companies behaving badly. If the French (like myself) don't like the FairPlay DRM, they can choose not to buy through the iTunes store, and can instead go through an alternative service such as eMusic.

There's one other point I'd like to make. People who use services such as iTunes, eMusic, Rhapsody, Napster, or any of the other sources for legally downloadable music, are trying to work within the system. They at least grasp the concept of intellectual property rights - that music and film and pictures actually belong to the people who created them, or those who've bought the rights. They shouldn't be treated like criminals-in-waiting.

And for those who, through one manner or another, have acquired digital media files which they haven't paid anything for - why not create some sort of method for them to acquire legal rights to use that material?

For music, my suggestion is that the big organizations which manage rights to music - mainly BMI and ASCAP - create some sort of online registration system where an individual can go online and register a song already in their possession, pay a nominal fee, and acquire the same legal rights to use that song as someone who's downloaded it from a legitimate service or purchased a CD.

Let's find more ways to enable everyone to be responsible consumers of intellectual property.

Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, visit http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.

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