Posted by: gregboyko | November 7, 2006

Zune, DRM, iPod, and You

Take a look at the following article:

BBC NEWS | Technology | Zune problems for MSN customers

It describes a problem that will affect you. Perhaps not today, but if we as consumers and citizens don’t do something about it, you will be affected someday.

The general problem is this: If you purchase music or other content for download from an online store such as iTunes, Zune Marketplace, Napster, etc., you may not be able to play that music in the future. The file you download contains DRM technology, which limits what you are allowed to do with the file. For example, the DRM may specify that you are only allowed to burn the song to CD five times. DRM is intended to prevent music piracy, and to a limited extent, it may help (although the real pirates will always find a way to pirate music/software). However DRM does far more than make piracy harder. Due to the infancy of DRM technology, there are no standards in place. Any company can create their own DRM scheme, and that DRM scheme will likely be incompatible with other schemes. Or the company can choose to no longer support the scheme going forward. The end result is that you cannot play the music you payed for, except under very limited circumstances.

Imagine you have an iPod (perhaps you actually do). You purchase hundreds of songs from the iTunes music store. You play your music happily until one day your iPod breaks. You decide to buy a new music player, but Microsoft has just released the Zune player, and you want to take advantage of all the features the Zune has to offer. Just one problem: the Zune will not play the hundreds of songs you bought from iTunes. So you decide that your only choice is to buy another iPod. Not ideal, but at least you can still play your music. Now a few years pass. You have purchased hundreds more songs from iTunes. Technology advances. The iPod is no longer the dominant music player, and indeed, Apple no longer supports the DRM scheme the old iPods used. Your iPod breaks and you need to buy a new player. This time you’re screwed, because no matter what player you buy, it will not be able to play your hundreds of dollars worth of music.

Impossible, you say? Just look at the rate of technological advance over the last 10-15 years. Remember 5 1/4 inch floppy disks? Good luck finding a drive that will read one of those today. It’s the same with DRM schemes. 15 years from now, it’s very likely that none of today’s dominant schemes will still be in use. And if you happen to purchase music that uses a DRM scheme that is obsolete in just a couple years, you’re really hurting.

So why is this a problem? Can’t you just transform the file into a format that will play on the newer players? No, not today. At least not without committing a criminal act. You see, congress passed a law known as the Digital Millenium Copyright Act several years ago. This law makes circumventing any copy protection mechanisms (such as the DRM on your music), for any reason, illegal.

What should you do about this problem? Well, the best solution is probably to never purchase DRM-protected music. Instead, just buy your music on CDs and rip to a non-DRM’d format, such as MP3, unprotected WMA, or any other unprotected format. But you also need to be a little careful when you buy CDs, as some CDs now prevent consumers from making digital copies. Ultimately, this problem will probably need to be solved by congressional legislation. Perhaps they will pass legislation similar to that proposed in the Digital Media Consumers’ Rights Act. Until then, stay away from DRM’d content!



  1. Hear hear!  Blasted DRM.SigmaX

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