DRM Drama

Microsoft’s Zune is supposed to be the latest thing, but to a lot of music fans, it’s more like the last straw.   Not because the device isn’t delivering what you’d expect from Microsoft — a digital music player with a few marginal new features and lots of bugs  — but because it continues the digital rights management frustration that makes music fans want to throw their beloved devices under a steamroller. 

As Newsweek explains:

Fans who buy a CD can assume that it will play on their Sony car stereos as well as their Panasonic sound systems at home. They cannot expect that a song that they purchase from iTunes will play on anything other than their computers or iPods, nor can they store it on an unlimited number of hard drives. Music lovers can burn the iTunes track onto a CD–but unless they’re techno-savvy, the resulting file will be of inferior quality.

And here‘s some particularly scathing commentary:

And then there’s really dumb digital rights management. How crazy is this? Zune doesn’t even work with Microsoft’s own PlaysforSure (except on a Zune) DRM. Protected music must come from the Zune Marketplace (which appears to be a rebranded version of URGE) and played on a special Zune player.

This mirrors Apple’s iPod/iTunes model, which is one idea Microsoft would have been wise to not to copy.

In fact, according to Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal, Microsoft’s DRM system literally hobbles the product as it leaves the starting gate:

Zune marks an unusual turn for Microsoft. The company is abandoning its favored business model, where it builds software platforms and then lets other companies make a wide variety of products that use that platform. Instead, Microsoft is building and totally controlling the whole chain associated with the product: the hardware, the software and the online music store. Songs sold on Zune Marketplace are intended to play only on the Zune, and Zune players won’t be able to play copy-protected songs bought elsewhere, even at other online stores that use Microsoft music formats.

Microsoft was driven to this approach because its platform model, so successful with personal computers, has failed miserably in the music category. Apple has simply rolled over all the hardware companies and online stores that were built around Microsoft’s previous music system, called “PlaysForSure.”

And that’s baffling, and that’s why the Zune is worrisome.   Microsoft’s PlaysForSure made it possible for many manufacturers to sell perfectly terrific mp3 players that didn’t come with iPod’s nuisances.   Under PlaysForSure, Real’s Rhapsody (about which I’m rhapsodic), Yahoo’s YME and Napster were able to set up subscription services that allowed you to play a lot of music without having to buy it.  And now, Mossberg suggests, Microsoft is pulling back from that eminently democratic model, and buying into the controlled, airless world of Apple. 

Apple without the charm, of course. Predictably, Mossberg concludes his review by saying “the iPod and iTunes are still the champs.”   This is why fans are starting to organize. No one really expected Microsoft to be the Lech Walesa against Apple’s Soviet bloc.  But to see them capitulate is causing the frustration to boil. 

Obviously the world faces far more pressing problems than how our dinky little jukeboxes work — but there is a bigger point to the campaign against DRM:  Do copywrights give owners the right to own their customers?


2 thoughts on “DRM Drama

  1. The best part is none of it actually works. The new standard may not have been cracked yet, but Itunes has been repeatedly, and now PlaysForSure has been, too. So, they only bother the people who don’t know enough to try to steal from them, not the people who do steal from them. It’s like airport security: a sophisticated system for irritating people.

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