Who's in Control When You Use WMP 9?

With the beta release of Windows Media Player (WMP) 9, Microsoft has finally merged the WMP offerings for all its current OSs back into one product. Before this release, Windows XP users got the features and benefits of WMP 8, while other Microsoft OSs were at WMP 7.1, with many people still using WMP 6.4 (XP users had no option to use an earlier version). WMP 9 is available for all versions of the Windows OS from Windows 98 Second Edition (Win98SE) forward.

As with any new Microsoft media release, ill-informed users are gnashing their teeth in the belief that the new media player will track and send data about all of their media use to Microsoft and are worrying that accepting the End User License Agreement (EULA) grants Microsoft control over their computers. Users are also anguishing over the media formats that WMP 9 supports—but that's a technology battle that I won't get into in this week's column.

One reason that Microsoft introduced WMP 9 was that the company is working with digital media-content providers (movie- and TV-content makers) on a system to protect copyrighted material and to provide a comprehensive digital-rights management (DRM) solution for this protected media. (The problems surrounding Napster is one example of the ongoing concerns related to DRM and protecting copyrighted content; one of the key problems that WMP 9 addresses is a DRM scheme that content providers can accept.) Now Microsoft has given specific conditions for using secure content with WMP 9. For clarity's sake, I quote the following paragraph from the EULA:

3. DIGITAL RIGHTS MANAGEMENT. Content providers are using DRM to protect the integrity of their content ('Secure Content') so that their intellectual property, including copyright, in such content is not misappropriated. Portions of this Software and third-party applications, such as media players, use DRM to play Secure Content ('DRM Software'). If the DRM Software's security has been compromised, owners of Secure Content ('Secure Content Owners') may request that Microsoft revoke the DRM Software's right to copy, display and/or play Secure Content. Revocation does not alter the DRM Software's ability to play unprotected content. A list of revoked DRM Software is sent to your computer whenever you download a license for Secure Content from the Internet. You therefore agree that Microsoft may, in conjunction with such license, also download revocation lists onto your computer on behalf of Secure Content Owners. Microsoft will not retrieve any personally identifiable information, or any other information, from your computer by downloading such revocation lists. Secure Content Owners may also require you to upgrade some of the DRM components on your computer ('DRM Upgrades') before accessing their content. When you attempt to play such content, Microsoft DRM Software will notify you that a DRM Upgrade is required and then ask for your consent before the DRM Upgrade is downloaded. Third party DRM Software may do the same. If you decline the upgrade, you will not be able to access content that requires the DRM Upgrade; however, you will still be able to access unprotected content and Secure Content that does not require the upgrade."

What the above paragraph guarantees is the right of secure-content owners to control the content that they own. Your own collection of MP3 files won't be affected in any way; any content that you've created that's not digitally owned and identifiable as such by someone else won't be affected, and nothing that WMP does will change that. When you purchase secure content, you might need to download additional software; once again, this doesn't affect your system's ability to use nonsecure content.

I'm sure paranoia will continue to run rampant, but DRM is a huge issue to content providers. Unless content providers can take steps to control their copyrights, they won't make copyrighted material available to your PC.

Prerelease concern that the press reported was that WMP 9 will track and report to Microsoft all the things that you use your player for, including Internet radio. Yes, WMP 9 does have the capability to do this. But by default, the three features that provide this capability are turned off. WMP 9 won't send your unique player ID to any content provider unless you tell it to do so. WMP 9 won't send any data use information to Microsoft unless you tell it to. WMP 9 won't save file or URL histories (which would indicate what media you've been using) unless you explicitly turn that function on.

So far, users have indicated that WMP 9 is a huge improvement and worth the upgrade—though I don't recommend wholesale use of beta software. But the Chicken Littles of the world who were expecting WMP 9 to significantly invade user privacy will be disappointed. Take a look at you'll be pleasantly surprised.

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