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Here we'll explore the nexus of legal rulings, Capitol Hill policy-making, technical standards development, and technological innovation that creates -- and will recreate -- the networked world as we know it. Among the topics we'll touch on: intellectual property conflicts, technical architecture and innovation, the evolution of copyright, private vs. public interests in Net policy-making, lobbying and the law, and more.

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September 2, 2004

The Irony of Digital Music DRM -- More Choices, Fewer Options

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Posted by Jason Schultz

One of the things people love most about the Internet is that it runs almost entirely on open standards. For example, you can send email to anyone in the world with any email client. You don't need to use a Hotmail account to send to a Hotmail user. You don't need to use Outlook to send email to an Outlook user. Every email program works with every other email program.

In the digital music world, however, we're seeing an increasing trend toward technological balkanization. Apple's iTunes won't work on anything but the iPod. Real's music won't work on open MP3 players. And now, as Frank and Donna have noted, Microsoft has launched its new MSN Music Store into the marketplace for digital downloads complete with Janus-encrypted DRM that only play on MSFT-approved devices. Thus, much like Apple and Real, Microsoft's music launch is just the latest effort to "bring music to the masses" by, ironically, setting up a new, separate, incompatible DRM fiefdom.

The problem with this world is that users can no longer count on the same freedom and compatibility they enjoy for Internet apps like email when it comes to online music. In fact, they will have significantly less freedom than they would buying a CD. Rip a CD and you can take the unencumbered MP3 files anywhere you go and listen to them on any computer or MP3 player you happen to be using. However, if a friend of mine wants to come over and play me a new song he just bought from an online store, I now have to ask him which store, what DRM restrictions are on it, is it compatible with my system, etc., or when he comes over, his song may not play on my system. This seems to me like a step backwards in technology, not forwards.

DRM also poses a serious threat to the notion of a "music collection" as we know it. Microsoft's new Music Store restrictions may seem innocuous and reasonable today if you own a Windows machine or use MSN as your OSP. But what if you switch at some point to a Mac? Or Linux? Or what if you cancel your MSN account? Will you be able to take your music with you? What if Microsoft decided in five years to drop support for its Music Store? Or what if most MP3 player manufacturers decide to drop Microsoft? All of the sudden you could end up with your music locked up and no key to unlock it. And the worst part is you have no control over the situation. You don't own the keys to your own music; Microsoft does.

These are the kinds of limited, crippled choices DRM gives us. And as DRM standards proliferate, incompatibilities and restriction will likely only increase. Unlike most markets where new options mean more choice and better deals for consumers, competition in the DRM music space fractures the functionality and choices that consumer want the most -- freedom, compatibility, and mobility.

So where will these DRM Wars lead us? Ironically, as my colleague Fred notes from a recent entry on Microsoft's own Music Store FAQ, they may lead us right back to where the digital music revolution started -- ripping MP3s from CDs onto our hard drives.

Comments (6) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Big Thoughts


1. Branko Collin on September 3, 2004 11:03 AM writes...

"your own music"

The other day I was arguing that copyright should not be compared to property, because an author is only a copyright holder, not a copyright owner. It was pointed out to me that US copyright law (contrary to Dutch copyright law) talks about authors owning their works.

"Your own music" implies you own the (copy of the) music. In the US this is apparently not true.

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2. Alexander Wehr on September 3, 2004 1:21 PM writes...

The bill of rights, which was an amendment to the constitution and thus takes precedent over the "furthering of the useful arts" clause states that people have a right to their own personal property.

If i do not own my music, then i am a serf, and the bill of rights is a lie. Few people will tolerate such micromanagement of their lives, as the aversion by most people of drm encumbered files shows.

I want to know when congress will stop ignoring the rest of the population's right to property, because we have these rights too.

I want to know precisely what marginal gains by a copyright holder justify the outright regulation, balkanization, and gutting of my computer to the point of severe incompatibility and uselessness.

In capitalism even rightsholders are required to compete and offer products which are attractive to consumers. In the case of this shift in technology, it means a new business model, and not chains on my property.

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3. Bas Burger on September 3, 2004 11:13 PM writes...

You are partly right...

There is a highly disruptive technology coming up, Car WiFi.
This means people will share their mp3's outside the internet on a temporary created WiFi cloud.
Traffic jams get a new meaning not far from now.

And it wont stop with Car WiFi, there will be 1000's of internets in a few years, a lot of static ones but more and more dynamic ones to create a temporary cloud to exchange things just to have it shut right thereafter.
Mind me to say to you that most wont be regulated.

In short: WiFi will enable everybody to fork the internet when and how they want.

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4. Asheesh Laroia on September 9, 2004 1:33 PM writes...

Keep in mind that the email example you give has been complicated by Microsoft's "Embrace and Extinguish" practices in the past. For example, Microsoft created a proprietary attachment format (!) called TNEF that was only usable between useres of Microsoft Outlook. One program to decode this format has a FAQ here - .

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5. kzar on September 12, 2004 1:36 PM writes...

as a correction...
the first ten amendments to the US constitution, aka the bill of rights, do not enumerate property rights.
they do enumerate the right to bear arms (2nd amendment), and the right against unreasonable search and seizure (4th amendment), but never says, anywhere, that people have an inherent property right.
furthermore, the declaration of independence also fails to enumerate the right to own property. it's state rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness".
Which is not to say that the old, rich men who drafted the US Constitution didn't create a country in which property rights are considered the most sacred of rights. Most likely, george washington and TJ would have been supporters of DRM for the music they sold to the colonial americans. you're in good company in your staunch support of DRM with a gaggle of slave holders.

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6. Dan Dobkin on September 12, 2004 2:44 PM writes...

The US Constitution does NOT grant ownership to authors or inventors -- it specifically grants 'exclusive rights for limited times'. Prof. Lessig unsuccessfully argued before the Supreme Court that under the current regimen of extending granted copyrights, the effective lifetime of a copyright is unlimited today. In any case, there is no ownership -- and in fact, the only rights granted are to authors and inventors, not large corporations.

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