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Is music finally free?

Not quite but it’s getting there as DRM technology takes another hit.

By Bill Camarda

When you buy music on CD, you can do pretty much what you want with it. You can copy it. You can convert it to MP3 (or any other) format to play on whatever portable other music playing device you might like. But that generally hasn’t been the rule when you buy digital music online. You’ve typically been forced to follow specific rules. Rules that limited where you can copy your music (and how often). Rules that limited where and how you played your music (and placed some devices off-limits).

Let’s say you plunked down 99 cents for a song at the iTunes store. You’d only be able to play that music file on your iPod; if you owned a Microsoft Zune, you’d be out of luck. You could copy backups to only five computers – but what happens 20 years from now, when you buy your sixth? And forget editing, excerpting, or sampling the music you’d paid for!
The essential hassle?

Most of those rules were demanded by the music industry. Otherwise, they figured, you’d make zillions of copies for all your “friends” – saving them the trouble of buying their own copies. These rules have been enforced by a set of technologies called “Digital Rights Management” (DRM): three little letters, but one of the most controversial acronyms in recent history.

For music sellers – hemorrhaging losses from massive piracy – DRM seemed indispensable. But for many users – especially the tech savvy – DRM was at best a nuisance, at worst an outrage. The folks who bought digital music instead of stealing it found themselves punished for doing the right thing: restricted in ways the “thieves” never had to worry about. Perhaps worst of all, if you purchased music from an online music store that went out of business, you could find yourself losing access to it if your computer died – or even if you simply wanted to move that music to a newer computer. Ouch!

Cracks in the wall

But DRM for music seems headed for extinction. Bottom line, it didn’t work. It didn’t stop piracy, but it might well have reduced online music sales. So the music industry – already reeling, and now suffering from tough economic times – appears ready to try something else. 

The first big cracks in the DRM wall came in 2007, when one major label, EMI, agreed to sell “unprotected” tracks on Apple’s iTunes for an extra 30 cents apiece. These tracks came without DRM technical restrictions – though, of course, all legal and moral strictures against piracy still remained. Nothing’s changed there.

A month later, Amazon introduced its own music store, selling unprotected tracks for 99 cents each. Small at first, Amazon’s music store gradually built a far wider selection. A few online music stores, such as eMusic, had long sold unprotected music from smaller record labels; they were joined by others who offered more choices, as the music industry quietly encouraged greater competition to Apple’s iTunes. In recent months, even Microsoft has introduced large libraries of DRM-free tracks.

The iTunes breakthrough

The big, new, news: Apple has just announced that all four of America’s dominant music companies – Sony, Universal, Warner, and EMI – will now sell their music on iTunes without DRM. These companies control the vast majority of popular music sold in the U.S. With their agreement, some 8,000,000 songs have now gone DRM-free on iTunes, with 2,000,000 more to follow by April. (What about the DRM’d music you’ve already bought on iTunes? You’ll be able to unshackle much of it -- if you’re willing to pay 30 cents a song for the privilege.)

The music labels got something in exchange for surrendering on DRM: Apple agreed to variable pricing. That means the newest, most popular songs will now cost $1.29 on iTunes. Millions of older songs will stay at 99 cents. Millions more will actually drop to 69 cents. The music industry hopes that offering a bargain on older music will encourage listeners to buy songs they might otherwise ignore.

Fading, but not quite gone

If DRM floats your boat, you can still find music stores that use it. For example, Rhapsody still offers “all-you-can-eat” access to DRM-protected tracks for a monthly subscription fee: as long as you keep paying, you can listen to anything you like. But when you stop subscribing, all the music you’ve downloaded disappears. Subscription services like Rhapsody may be attractive if you listen to enormous amounts of music – but, in truth, they’ve never really met their owners’ expectations. (That may be why Rhapsody has also launched an iTunes-like MP3 music store with no DRM restrictions.)

Those who love DRM will be happy to know it’s going strong for other forms of content. The leading digital audiobook download service, Audible, still protects its content (though some competitors, like eMusic, do offer unprotected audiobooks). Some publishers, like Random House, have abandoned DRM protections; others, like HarperCollins, are still contemplating whether to make that leap.

The last holdouts: movies and videogames

Movies remain heavily DRM-protected: both NetFlix-style digital downloads and DVDs. In fact, new Blu-Ray DVDs contain even tougher anti-copying protections than “regular” DVDs. (Right now, there’s an ongoing Spy-vs-Spy war between the movie industry and Antigua-based SlySoft, a company that has dedicated itself to breaking Blu-Ray’s anti-copying technology. Last we heard, Blu-Ray’s winning – but ask us again in a few months!)

Console videogames remain carefully protected against copying, too. So do some PC games. This past fall, Electronic Arts’ high-profile new game, Spore, was savaged for its restriction to no more than three installs, or more than one user account per copy. Since then, EA’s backed off – somewhat. But, along with the bad publicity, hackers got their revenge by making Spore one of the most pirated games in history.

Bill Camarda has been writing about technology for families, kids, and others for 25 years, starting as an editor for Scholastic's Family Computing Magazine. His 18 computer books include Upgrading & Fixing Networks For Dummies and The Cheapskate's Guide to Bargain Computing. He lives in Ramsey, NJ with his wife and 14-year old son.

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