DRM Lock-in

Although I’ve always understood that there’s a link between digital rights management (or DRM) and product lock-in, it really hit home for me today.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept of Digital Rights Management: there are a variety of DRM schemes, but basically the point is to restrict what you can do with files that reside on your computer. For example, when you purchase tracks from iTunes· or Napster·, they are encrypted in such a way that you should only be able to play those tracks on the machine you purchased them with. (A Norwegian programmer has cracked the iTunes DRM scheme, however.·).

Now obviously this causes some inconvenience if you change computers frequently, or if you want to listen to your music on many different devices. In fact, as a side effect of iTune’s DRM scheme, you might purchase tracks, move to Canada, and then be unable to listen to them at all·.

But the more insidious problem is the lack of interoperability. Here’s an example from the “real world”:

My family is having an 80th birthday party for my grandmother next week. We’re renting an LCD projector and are planning on having a fancy slideshow with a soundtrack of popular showtunes to accompany photographs from the past 80 years. So my family members, thinking it would be easy, purchased a bunch of tracks on Napster and iTunes for the slideshow.

The slideshow program, however, only knows how to play MP3 or WAV files. Since the Napster and iTunes tracks are encrypted and protected with DRM, there’s no way to convert them to MP3. Too bad for us.

Presumably there is other proprietary slideshow software that is built to work with the Apple and Microsoft DRM music schemes. So if you want to purchase music online and have it accompany your photo slideshow, you’re going to have to pick the approved products. It gets even worse since many of these schemes are covered by patents, and any software or hardware maker that wants to implement it has to pay a licensing fee—and the patent owner could simply refuse to license the patent to competing entities.

Sometimes it’s hard to explain to normal people what the problem is with DRM. I think this is a perfect example of ordinary people experiencing lock-in and considerable trouble while trying to take advantage of what should be the ultraconvenience of digital media.

Is it any wonder that consumers might prefer file sharing on peer-to-peer networks—which costs nothing—to purchasing expensive media encumbered with DRM?

1 comment

  1. allgood2 Jan 28

    I was hoping to find your peice on DRM good, but unfortunately it has way too many factual mistakes. To take them on as they appear in the article:

    1) Songs purchased from Napster or iTunes can only be played on the computer they are purchased on. Both Napster and iTunes allow purchased songs to be played on up to 3 computers, media players, and to be burnt to CD. With iTunes you can either share the file, or directly transfer it to another machine. With Napster you can re-download the file from the Napster site to the new machine.

    2) A Norwegian programmer has cracked the iTunes DRM scheme. Technically not true even if that’s the media label for. John’s conversion solution is basically away to convert protected AAC files to standard AAC files without burning them to CD. To perform this task, one must have legal access to the file on their computer before they can do the conversion. Apple gives this same ability to the user by allowing them to burn CDs. The process of burning a CD converts the file from protected AAC to Mp3, wav, aiff. John’s solution allows you to bypass the CD, but is far more complicated for the average user to perform. And as an aside, at least on the Mac version Roxio’s Toast will allow you to create a CD image without burning the CD, that contains the converted files.

    3) You might purchase tracks, move to Canada and be unable to play them. Further reading of this link, lets the reader know that the mistake was the fault of the author. Basically the user wiped his hard drive, moved to Canada, and then changed all his Apple billing information, before trying to restore his purchased music files. The user indicates that the issue was successfully resolved. Of course DRM does cause some issue, the user made too many changes (changes to his Apple account, his address, billing, and his computer) at once. Obviously Mp3 files don’t care if you change any or all of them. So yes, there are limits to DRM, but that is the point.

    4) The slideshow program, however, only knows how to play MP3 or WAV files… Napster and iTunes tracks are encrypted with DRM… there‚Äôs no way to convert them to MP3. Sure there is burn a CD then re-import the files as Mp3 files. Just create the playlist of music you want, waste $1.00 on a CD-R, burn the playlist, the import the songs from the CD to your projector. This issue is far more a format issue than a DRM issue. If you had a Word Perfect document and needed to read it in Microsoft Word, you’d convert. So why wouldn’t you convert your protected AAC or windows media files. I know this is all very simply in iTunes, and takes pretty much as long as your CD burner. I can burn to CD and rip back to MP3 in under 15 minutes. Sure it would be nice to have a 5 minute process, but its not as if the current process is a mountainous barrier.

    It would have been nice to find both an accurate and “fair & balanced” article. But as I do more research into DRM, it seems that more and more sites go out of their way to try to prove any inconvenience makes DRM bad. Obviously an argument I don’t agree with, since DRM is in part due solely to the convenience that digital world provides. My biggest fear around DRM is the background rumblings that indicate many studios and record labels would prefer a subscription-based model where people have to pay and pay and continously pay for the same material time and time again.

    Apple’s FairPlay was the first DRM that broke that mold, but I fear Microsoft’s collusion with the industry will bring it back, and that’s a definite issue with DRM.

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