A UK public inquiry into how the digital copy-protection systems that online music services such as Apple iTunes, MTV URGE, and Napster currently employ has determined that the services don't do enough to educate consumers about the restrictions of their music offerings. Furthermore, the All Party Parliamentary Internet Group, which organized the inquiry, says that the UK government should investigate the pricing schemes of online music services because the same content is often priced differently in other countries.
Digital Rights Management (DRM), the technology that restricts songs purchased from iTunes and other online music services, is a "damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't" proposition. The fear is that consumers would simply steal music if DRM weren't available, and certainly Apple's ability to sell more than 1 billion DRM-encoded songs speaks to the credibility of these claims. But how many songs might Apple be able to sell if they weren't encoded with DRM? And what if those songs were made available in much higher quality formats than the low-quality 128Kbps AAC format that Apple currently uses?
You can temporarily catch a glimpse of this wonderful alternative reality by checking out AllofMP3.com, a Russian online music service that's gaining in popularity. I say "temporarily" because AllofMP3.com is so clearly illegal that the US government is using it as a blocker for Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO). And that's too bad, because as was the case with the original Napster service—which established peer-to-peer (P2P) technology as the ultimate way of distributing content online—AllofMP3.com makes all the established online music services, especially iTunes, look silly by comparison.
Here's why. Apple and the other online music services appear to be about offering consumers digital music content. But you're being fooled by marketing. iTunes, Napster, and URGE are really about big technology corporations establishing their formats as standards so that they can reap financial benefits for years to come. Apple locks you in to its iPod MP3 player by making iTunes-purchased music incompatible with non-Apple devices. Napster, URGE, and most other music services are partnering with Microsoft, which is pushing its own audio and video standards, none of which work with Apple's offerings. And behind them all is the music industry, overcharging everyone for the right to use its content, all while underpaying the artists who actually made the music.
The silly thing about all this is that there's absolutely no reason, except for greed, that these products and services can't interoperate. And there are already formats out there, such as MP3 for audio and MPEG-2 for video, that work with virtually every PC and device on the planet. Instead of adopting the de facto standards that already exist, Microsoft, Apple, and the others are pushing their own agendas and not catering to your needs. In my book, consumers come first, and that's why I've expended so much effort explaining why—if you must purchase music from online music stores—you should do so from the services that offer the highest-quality music and then convert the songs immediately to MP3 format. (See the Connected Home Media article "Acquiring Digital Music" for details.)
So, what does AllofMP3.com have to offer? The site describes itself simply as an online music store with hundreds of thousands of albums, with free music previews that feature the entire song—not just a 30-second sample, as with iTunes. But AllofMP3.com really sets itself apart with its pricing and quality. Unlike other online music services, AllofMP3.com lets you choose which music formats and which encoding rates to use for the songs you purchase. The higher the encoding rate, the higher the price: The service literally charges by the megabyte. AllofMP3.com performs what it calls "live encoding": When you choose a song or album to buy, the interface first presents you with a choice of formats, including MP3, Windows Media Audio (WMA), OGG Vorbis, MPEG-4/AAC, and MusePack MPC. Then, it lets you choose between Low quality (128 Kbps), High quality (192 Kbps), and CD quality (320 Kbps), or go into an advanced mode and literally pick exactly the encoding quality you want in either constant bitrate (CBR) or variable bitrate (VBR) encoding styles. All these formats are completely unprotected by DRM, so you can do whatever you want with them later. For music lovers who understand technology, it's a dream come true.
How much does music cost on AllofMP3.com? To find out, I examined a few Pearl Jam albums that I already happen to own on CD. Encoded in 256Kbps MP3 CBR, the band's first album, Ten, costs $1.98. The band's second album, Vs., recorded at the same quality, costs $1.74. And yes, you read those prices correctly. On other online music services, these albums cost $9.99, are encoded with limiting DRM, and are of much lower quality.
The catch, of course is that AllofMP3.com might not be legal. According to reports, the service is taking advantage of a loophole in Russia's copyright laws to both stay in business and offer music from artists, such as The Beatles, that aren't available on other services. The music industry has been working to shut the site down for two years, but Russian courts have let it remain in business. Here's the catch: Even though Russia might technically find the service to be legal, it's legal only in Russia. As the site itself notes, users will need to be aware of legal concerns in their own countries before using the service. And there's a wider concern about the artists responsible for the music sold on AllofMP3.com. My understanding is that they don't get paid when someone buys music there. That's not cool.
Should you use AllofMP3.com? Not at all. But I do think that consumer awareness about this service should spark outrage over the low quality of the songs we purchase at iTunes, as well as the expense and limitations of the songs we purchase at all online music services. Legitimate services such as iTunes and Napster have done much to bring music into the digital decade. Now it's time to drop the baloney and offer customers what they really want: high-quality music that will work on any PC or device, at any time. AllofMP3.com is exactly the music service I want: Music purchased from that service works on my PC, iPod, and Media Center, and I get to pick the quality of the songs I buy. Doing so shouldn't be a criminal offense. It should just be the way it is.