Bypassing DRM

There’s a lot of talk in the music industry about how to protect music from copyright infringement and illegal use. Record companies as a whole were fairly slow to give in to the whole music download idea because they see it as a threat to their empires… for years the record companies had an exclusive stronghold on the production and distribution of music. As the world has gotten flatter and the gap between an idea in a musician’s head and the release of that musical idea to a waiting public has gotten smaller, cheaper and easier, the role of the record company has shrunk in importance.

So as we’ve witnessed the rise of digital music across the Internet, we’ve also seen the record companies fight tooth and nail to hang on their ivory towers. They’ve used their legal muscle to crush filesharing services like Napster and Morpheus, while others such as Limewire have so far somehow managed to avoid being taken down. The reasoning goes that if people are allowed to share music files with each other then they won’t buy CDs and the artists can’t get paid. (Perhaps more importantly, the record company execs won’t be able to afford a new Lexus.) Truth be told, if anything, people seem to be listening to more music than ever, and across a much wider range of musical styles and tastes. In that sense, there are plenty of bands and musicians for whom the ability to distribute their music digitally without the interference of the big record companies has meant they actually get their music out to more people, not less. And not just for free either… for many musicians that extra exposure means they end up selling more of their music as well.

So a couple of years ago Apple comes along with iTunes and says, “Hey, let’s do this right… let’s create a huge online collection of music, let’s charge people a fair price for each song (US99 cents), and let’s put a DRM in place that is actually fair and reasonable.” DRM, or Digital Rights Management, means that each song file has metadata embedded into it that makes the file self-aware – it knows what devices it lives on, knows how many times it has been burnt to CD, and keeps track of its own usage. The Apple DRM, called Fairplay, was quite a coup and I’m sure that getting the record companies to agree with it was somewhat due to the infamous Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field – a name given to the way that Jobs always seems to be able to convince people to believe things and do things that they would never have imagined they’d agree to.

Apple’s lead with iTunes was followed (as usual) by others, such as Rhapsody, The Zune Marketplace, Amazon, and a host of other operations that now sell music legally. By and large these online music stores are profitable and seem to sell a lot of music. If you walk into any classroom though, and ask the kids how many of the songs they have on their MP3 players have been bought, it is a tiny percentage. Mostly they just look at you with a confused expression and say “How many have I bought? Why would want to do that when I can just download them off the Net for free?”

DRM prevents music files from being endlessly shared. After a certain number of sharings, or a certain number of plays, or after being placed on a certain number of devices, the files just stop working. That won’t make the kids happy but it should keep the record companies happy, and more importantly the artists get paid and so keep making music.

However, the songs that are floating around the Net’s many filesharing services at the moment are generally devoid of any DRM. They CAN be copied and shared an infinite number of times, if not legally then at least without any real technical barriers to doing so. So if the songs “out there” in cyberspace are not DRMed, and are open to illegal sharing, then where do they come from?

And then tonight, as I was ripping one of my CDs into iTunes so I could listen to it on my iPod, it struck me that the source of all these illegal files is probably the very same place that the record companies are desperately trying to hang onto… CDs.

The irony is that if record companies would drop the whole CD distribution model and just accept – no, embrace – the digital downloading of music then all the music files in cyberspace would eventually be DRMed, since the source for non-DRM files would basically dry up. Would you share your DRMed music? I’m not sure I would want to share my legal music collection over a filesharing network if I knew that I would be giving away the rights to listen to it myself. As long as the record companies insist on hanging onto the control of their market and insist on selling musical bytes encoded onto plastic disks which they seem to feel are more real and therefore easier to control, but much easier to rip as non-DRMed files for sharing online, then we should continue to have an ongoing source for non-DRMed music.

Let’s hope they never wake up to this.

CC BY-SA 4.0 Bypassing DRM by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.