Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Music and DRM

Virgin Digital is shutting down in stages, and nailing another nail into the coffin (in which we are buried alive) of music Digital Rights Management (DRM).
According to a message on the site, the online music store has already shut its doors to new customers as of last Friday, and as of this coming Friday, it will cease selling individual tracks to current customers. Only subscribing members will have access to the site until their next payment is due or October 19, whichever comes first. After that, the site will cease to operate for both US and UK customers.

The site now advises its customers who have purchased tracks to back them up, as they will not be able to download them again once Virgin Digital has closed. It's unclear whether the purchasers of individual tracks will be able to access their songs without burning them to CD and reimporting them as MP3s, but it's better to be safe than sorry if you're one of those customers. And naturally, subscribing members will lose access altogether once their subscriptions lapse.

In the meantime, Amazon has launched (for US users only at present). "So what?" I hear you cry. Well, all of the songs are sold entirely free of DRM, and many are cheaper than on Apple's iTunes Music Store. Daring Fireball has a detailed review of the store and it is very favourable.

What is interesting, though, is the attitude of the music companies hosted. Amazon are essentially selling music from two of the big four: EMI and Universal. Earlier this year, EMI started selling all of its tracks on the iTunes Music Store without DRM and at a higher bit rate (and allowed you to "upgrade" the songs that you had already purchased).

However, Universal's relationship with Apple is obviously not good, as John Gruber points out.
Universal seems to be taking a particularly hardline — if not outright spiteful — approach in their continuing negotiations with Apple. EMI is already selling DRM-free music through iTunes, as the only label from the big four participating in Apple’s iTunes Plus. Universal, on the other hand, isn’t selling DRM-free music through iTunes. If you want DRM-free music from Universal, you can only get it at Amazon.

Despite Steve Jobs saying that Apple would happily embrace DRM free music, Universal have obviously decided that it does not want to do this through iTunes. So, whilst people point the finger at Apple's Fairplay DRM being evil, one must remember that it is the music companies who do the deals. As John says...
In fact, the tragedy is that Amazon could have built this store 10 years ago — the music labels simply wouldn’t allow it. What’s happened now is that the music label executives — at least at Universal and EMI — have finally gotten it through their thick skulls that it’s the iPod that drives iTunes sales, not the other way around. Apple’s FairPlay DRM isn’t (at least primarily) some sort of lock-in scheme to force people to buy iPods; FairPlay was a requirement stipulated by the labels, without which they would not have allowed Apple to sell their music at all.

People buy iPods because they love them. If your music doesn’t play on iPods, it isn’t going to sell. And so if (a) you refuse to sell music downloads without DRM; and (b) no other DRM system other than Apple’s is compatible with iPods; then we’re left with a situation where the only successful store is going to be iTunes. What Universal and EMI now seem to have learned, at long last, is that (b) is completely under Apple’s control; only (a) — the labels’ own willingness to allow their music to be sold without DRM — is under their control.

Let us hope that comes to the UK swiftly; and when it does, I would encourage everyone to use it and show the music companies that we will buy music more readily when our ability to use it as we see fit is not hampered by DRM restrictions.

More importantly, Apple will, for the first time, have real competition in the music download market and this can only be good for consumers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Amazon (and other non-DRM MP3 sites) also have the advantage of allowing those who choose Free Software systems like Linux to buy music. We only make up about 5% of computer users (if that), but you can bet your ass every fucking one of us will be using Amazon.

Oh yeah? So what has happened for the last ten years, exactly?

Over at the ASI, they are posting some of the winning entries of the Young Writers on Liberty. One does not want to put such keen minds off,...