Online Music Services: A Good Start, But... - 29 Jan 2004

Like many of you, I've been following the battle between the recording industry and the music-listening public. I'm not following the battle because I'm worried about where I'll get music or how I'll be able to use it. Rather, my interest in the "music wars" stems from the fact that they're actually copyright wars with far-reaching implications. More specifically, I know that whatever affects music copyrights will probably affect software licensing. I fear that we'll end up with more irritating hoops to jump through when we need to install and maintain software, and we won't be able to do a thing about it; software vendors will point to the massive amount of music downloading as proof that they must protect their intellectual property, even if doing so makes our jobs more difficult. In other words, I suspect that what happens in today's music wars will offer clues about the future of software licensing and protection.

The Online Music Industry Conundrum
Let's review what's been happening in the online music industry. During the summer of 2003, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) started suing heavy downloaders. Downloaders argued that they had no option but to download and share music because they couldn't buy just one song and that audio CDs cost too much. On December 19, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said the RIAA couldn't force ISPs such as Verizon to hand over the names of the big downloaders, again changing the balance of power until some other court shakes things up again.

The music industry has responded with several new Web sites that let you purchase music online, either by the track or by the album, but do these new online music stores really work for music users? I decided to try them out to see. I joined five online music service vendors: Apple Computer's iTunes Music Store, RealNetworks' Music Store, MusicMatch, Napster, and BuyMusic.com.

Each of these vendors sell digital music content (and, in some cases, audiobooks or other nonmusical spoken content) that includes some kind of built-in protection. Apple provides files in an .m4p format that only the iTunes software can play. RealNetworks provides files in a .rax format that requires the company's latest player software, and the other three vendors provide Windows Media Audio (WMA) files with embedded Digital Rights Management (DRM) that require recent Windows Media Player (WMP) versions. The purpose of these restrictions is to limit what you can do with the files; the proprietary players can refuse to play a tune if you haven't properly licensed it. But these restrictions don't work perfectly. I found, for example, that although Sony Pictures Digital Networks' Sound Forge 6.0 couldn't open the protected WMA files, the earlier Sound Forge 5.0 had no trouble opening the files.

But what if you want to burn a regular audio CD with your downloaded tracks? My copies of Ahead Software's Nero Burning ROM and Roxio's Easy CD & DVD Creator didn't recognize the files as audio files and were unable to burn a music CD. To make a CD, you must use the music vendor's CD burning software. Most general merchandise online stores let you shop from any Web browser, but Napster, Apple, Real Networks, and MusicMatch require you to download and run a program that serves as an interface to their online stores, a personal music library manager, and a CD burner. You don't actually need Napster or MusicMatch's burner because WMP can burn CDs from protected WMA files, which is why BuyMusic.com doesn't have a store/library/burner program.

Most online music stores charge the same amount per track: $0.99. (I remember when you could buy an entire monaural vinyl album for that!) You can also buy entire albums starting at $9.99. From a digital music point of view, there's no difference between the downloaded tracks and an album, which leads to oddities such as the fact that MusicMatch sells each of the nine tracks in Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" for $0.99 a piece, but buying the album costs $9.99. Why anyone would purchase the album for almost $10 when they can have it for just under $9 is a mystery to me. The variation in costs for some albums is also a mystery--for example, Apple sells "Dark Side of the Moon" for $17!

Online music selections can also be a bit unpredictable. Some albums and artists are available electronically, whereas others aren't--with no seeming rhyme or reason. Why would the movie soundtrack for "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" be available online but not the soundtrack for "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers"?

Restrictions Loom
How do these music services use their content control to restrict your use of the music that you've purchased online? Every vendor agrees that you can burn a given song to CD as many times as you like and that you can put a given tune on as many portable devices (e.g., Windows palmtops, Palm devices, Apple iPods, Creative Nomads) as you desire. But some vendors don't allow the same freedom for burning particular playlists. You can, for example, put together your own "best of grunge" playlist, but after doing so, you'll only be able to copy it to five CDs if you bought your tracks from MusicMatch or RealNetworks. BuyMusic.com's restrictions vary from track to track, and Apple lets you burn as many copies of a given playlist as you like. The real restrictions are in the number of PCs on which you can put a given tune. Napster, BuyMusic.com, and MusicMatch let you put a given track on only one computer. Apple lets you put a tune on three computers, and RealNetworks doesn't specify any such restrictions.

These measures don't sound terribly restrictive, but I suspect that this is just the camel's nose under the tent. After we've become accustomed to living in a DRM world, what will keep vendors from tightening the screws? Why not sell music that expires in a year or that restricts you from burning more than one CD? And all the usage agreements say basically the same thing about data loss--the vendor isn't responsible. Because you can put a tune on only one PC, what happens if the PC crashes forever? Unless you've backed up your music and licenses, the music is gone forever too. I don't think that's unreasonable, but many people don't back up their files and wouldn't know how to back up their licenses. A nice feature would be for the library manager/CD burner software to include a bit of nagging about backing up licenses and a bit of hand-holding about how to accomplish it. And, again, I do worry about what future restrictions vendors might impose. I'd feel a lot more comfortable about DRM if laws existed that limit how Draconian the vendors can become.

There's Room to Grow
Furthermore, in my experience, DRM software is still young. I've had no trouble burning CDs from any of the systems, but transferring tunes to my Creative MuVo Nomad--a nifty USB drive with some audio hardware added to create a sound playback device about the size and weight of a disposable lighter. You must use WMP to transfer protected files to the Nomad, or the Nomad won't play the files. Portable music device support is also an iTunes shortcoming--Apple supports only iPods. And because iTunes offers the most nonmusical audio content, I'm missing out on the ability to buy lectures and put them on the Nomad.

So why don't I simply burn the content to a regular audio CD, then rip the tracks on that CD to MP3 or unprotected .wma files? When I purchased the music, I had to agree to a contract that says I won't attempt to bypass the vendor's DRM scheme. Burning CDs and ripping the content just to remove DRM would be a pretty clear case of sneaking around the protection. Thus, DRM protection schemes fall into two categories: software that prevents you from doing something and legal agreements that say what you shouldn't do--the "can't" protection and the "shouldn't" protection.

Today's online music stores are a good start, but they need more work. I look forward to a day when I'll find a greater variety of content available, less trouble managing portable devices, and vastly improved license management schemes.

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