Digital rights management has helped pave the way
to a legal online music economy, with iTunes Music Store
as its loved
poster child. The DRM wrapper protects copyright holders by making music difficult to copy. It has also aggravated consumers who feel trapped by proprietary DRM schemes--even those who believe in DRM in its purest form: technology that exists to thwart piracy.
DRM is such a volatile term. It can get some hearts racing. In fact, it's such a touchy subject that leaders in France, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and even Canada have joined the anti-DRM fray with legislation designed to force online music stores to make music interoperable. Might the U.S. Congress be the next stage for the DRM wars?
The way its stands today, DRM seems to be used less to thwart piracy and more to establish a dominant position in the music industry. A dominant music store caters to its own brand of portable device, while a giant contingent of less successful WMA stores--such as Napster, Rhapsody, Yahoo Music, and Urge, and so on--caters to dozens of brands of MP3 players. The Windows model seems more open and full of choices, but it doesn't cater to the most popular (by far) MP3 player in the United States.
Amid the hubbub, I haven't heard many real solutions. Granted, Apple Computer has chalked up a minor victory in France. But what would the originally proposed French law--which would have forced Apple to share its exclusive copy-protection technologies--have done to the
world's biggest online music store?
Apple could have offered to sell DRM-protected WMAs (unlikely), which would play on almost all non-iPod, non-Sony, MP3 players. Apple could have licensed FairPlay to its competition so that all players could play iTunes tracks (even more unlikely). Apple could have packed its bags and left one of Europe's biggest potential markets (more likely). Or it could have followed in the steps of Starzik, one of France's newest--and perhaps boldest--music stores, by offering tracks without DRM. Starzik offers downloads in MP3, OGG, FLAC, and unprotected AAC and WMA. The library of 600,000 tracks is dwarfed by iTunes' library of 2 million, so the selection of popular music might be extremely limited. But the non-DRM model can work--just look at eMusic. Conversely, don't look at the quasi-legal allofmp3.com.
eMusic is one of dozens of sources for legally downloadable online music.
eMusic is a pioneer of online music. In its latest incarnation, it's a subscription service where users can download 40 songs for $9.99 per month (about 25 cents per track) from a growing library of more than 1 million tracks. All songs are in DRM-free MP3 format, can be used on any portable player, and can be streamed, copied, and burned without limitations.
To me, that's what music is all about. It's not some piece of media that can fit in only one type of player. It's data--personal data. The beauty of eMusic--which on paper would be outgunned by Napster or even the new Tower Records Digital because of a lack of major label content--is that it's growing a successful business based on fair rights, a decent selection of mostly indie-based music, and fair compensation for artists and copyright holders. Most importantly, it's a place where I can buy music legally and do with it what I wish.
If you are anti-DRM, consider joining a site such as eMusic (which has more than 175,000 subscribers); the more successful it gets, the more the major labels will want a piece of the pie, DRM or not. The selection on eMusic, which often adds new labels, isn't shabby either. We might not love the subscription aspect--if you don't use your 40 songs, you lose them--but the experience feels purer--though not as pure as downloading songs for free on LimeWire or the original Napster. A few years back, I signed up for eMusic and enjoyed discovering some new tunes but was bothered by the difficulty in getting out of my subscription. Now I've rediscovered the site and have poked around others that offer DRM-free music.
What's your opinion on DRM?
There are actually a bunch of Web sites, stores, podcasts, and other places that cater to those looking for good DRM-free music. In addition CNET's own music.download.com
, there's musikethos.org
, where you can download a broad range of classical music and other music in the public domain or authorized to be used under Creative Commons
licenses. There is also Audio Lunchbox
, an eMusic-like site offering loads of indie-based MP3s. We like Live Downloads
, a site where you can download recordings of live performances in either MP3 or uncompressed FLAC. And there's Magnatune.com, which states: "No major label connections. We are not evil." You might not be able to download Shakira or Gnarls Barkley from these sites (though you can stream some songs for free), but you'll get Ulrich Schnauss
, Starlight Mints
, and other indie faves.
I'm not anti-DRM, but I have a problem with closed DRM schemes--I'll buy DRM tracks if I can play them on any device. (Real's widely documented Harmony technology does this fairly well but with its own limitations.) I have purchased many iTunes and WMA tracks and find it deplorable that I can't play my music on all my devices. I have to burn and rip a dozen songs at a time to get them over to the other universe. I'm not saying the Napsters and the iTunes of the world are bad products; in fact, they are excellent places to browse and shop for the music that most people care about. But think twice before you purchase a track at those stores, and understand that your choice gives you far less flexibility than a plain old audio CD would. Your music will not be interoperable with a multitude of devices, and you'll have to get specific hardware or software just to play them. For many people, closed DRM nearly negates the flexibility and conveniences that digital audio brings to consumers in the first place.
Lots of people are fine with a closed system such as iTunes, where they'll invest hundreds of dollars in music that will play on only their next iPod. They're fine with it, that is, until they discover they can't even stream a DRM song without an AirPort Express. You can always burn your tracks and rerip them or troll the Web for DRM-destroying software. Or you can support online, indie music stores, where you can get quality DRM-free tracks without having to steal.
James Kim is a senior editor for CNET Reviews.