Professor Grumpator speaks on DRM

Babs commented on the last post: "What is DRM? It sounds like familiar. And it might be one of those things that's not an issue with macs." And I realized that perhaps not everyone is as rabid about these things as I am. So, here's a little lecture with which to start your weekend.

DRM stands for "Digital Rights Management", which is basically a method of artificially creating restrictions on electronic data, usually affecting how, when, and where the data can be used. DRM is most commonly referred to when speaking about music, but in actuality nearly all software is DRM's to a certain extent - it's a method of enforcing the terms of use or license agreements inherent in purchasing software, or really any copyrighted digital object.

I'll keep this about music, however. Let's just mention a few vocabulary terms for you to memorize.
  • .wav - a wav file is an uncompressed audio file. If you just ripped a track on your computer from a cd, that would be a wav.
  • mp3 - stand for M-PEG 1 Audio Layer 3, which is a compressed audio file. Mp3s can be played on any player (there may be some exceptions to this)
  • .wma - Windows Media Audio. These can be played on nearly all players, with the exception of iPods, which, naturally, do not play well with Windows. This is not due to DRM inherent in the format, but rather with iPods being programmed not to accept them.
  • .aac - stands for Advanced Audio Coding - this is the default audio format for iTunes, and consequently, iPods. For a long time, only iPods could play this format, but in the last year or so, other players have been coded to accept it.
  • Fairplay - the DRM coding used by iTunes - this restricts files bought through iTunes to only allow certain types of usage, as well as certain players.
So, yes, babs, DRM is an issue with macs. :-)

I believe that one of the biggest problems people have with DRM and music files isn't that it exists, but it implies that all music consumers are pirates who can't wait to download or buy music and then share it with everyone illegally. In reality, this is far from the truth. The majority of music consumers just want to be able to purchase music - only one time, though - and be able to listen to it on their computer or portable device of their choosing. This sounds very simple, but there is nothing in DRM that allows for shared households, such as a married couple. If Chris buys a song on iTunes, I can't use it without all sorts of cumbersome circumventions. The easiest thing is to just buy the song twice, even though by law, we jointly own everything. Most other online music stores have similar restrictions built into their products that restrict the number of times a file can be copied, burned, and sometimes even listened to. In this way, DRM actually encourages normally law-abiding music owners to become pirates - it's easier to get music illegally if you want to be able to use it!

It's frustrating, too, because even if there IS rampant file sharing (re: back in the days of Napster, before it became legit), real music lovers would still prefer purchase songs legitimately. With file-sharing, there are a lot of unknowns - the file might be bad, it might be corrupted, it might not be the whole song, there are connection issues, etc. It's so much easier to be able to puchase music from a trustworthy source, and get all the correct metadata (title, artist, album, etc), and album covers. It's not as if most people want to be pirates - we just want to buy music!

Many of these restrictions are part of the panic-stricken efforts of the RIAA (Recording Industry of America Association). Granted, they're having a hard time adjusting to the digital world, but they're really going about it the wrong way. I have a feeling that this will be coming to a head within the next few years, and when that does happen, the music industry as we know it will be drastically different.

As Kelly mentions, iTunes is now selling some DRM-free files. While I applaud this step, I'm still cranky, because I have to pay a 30-cent premium to have the privilege of using the music I buy. I have to pay more just to have the usual First Sale privileges granted by Fair Use.

It all gets really complicated when you look at licenses and copyright law - and we all know I'm no lawyer (...but I play one...never mind). However, I'd like to point you to the Copyfight link in my sidebar if you're interested in further reading. Additionally, the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) has many interesting posts on the topic.


  1. This was interesting, thanks! I used to use Napster back in the day, and while it's great to swap music for free with anyone in the world, I have to admit, paying $.99 is more than reasonable for a song. After my brief years in the recording industry, you realize how much work goes into creating an album and how little the artists actually receive. I try not to pirate anymore, but sometimes I hate the fact that Itunes only has "popular" music, and if you're looking for something very specific, they usually don't have it. Anyone have suggestions for a better and more comprehensive site to download mp3's from?

  2. I completely agree with you that the RIAA, in the frantic attempt to protect its interests, is shooting itself in the foot. The recent decision by the Copyright Royalty Board, lobbied by the RIAA, to triple the licensing fees paid by internet radio (and internet radio alone) seems like another wrong-headed attempt to regain tight control over what listeners get to hear (with Clear Channel, they have plenty of control over regular radio). This--which will likely kill Pandora--coupled with their constant attempts to raise the prices on iTunes just seems to show that their technology-backwards and unnecessarily greedy actions in court and otherwise will probably end up destroying their own business. You're right--even with iTunes, the only way you can get real fair use out of your music is to obtain it without DRM, which most of the time means illegally.

    During the days of Napster, I used to think it would eventually become unprofitable altogether to sell music, that the RIAA would collapse, that all digital music would become free, and that artists would make money off the only thing they could continue to sell--themselves, i.e. concerts and appearances. Now, I'm not sure. But with iTunes offering some limited non-DRM music, the RIAA wanking themselves into market oblivion with foolish attempts to regain their once god-like control over popular music, and the gathering ranks of users working to blow that control sure does seem like we're headed for a showdown that will remake the music industry--hopefully into something better.

    BTW, on his new album Weird Al has an absolutely awesome parody of those artist "Charity" songs, i.e. save the children, help Africa, etc. and whatever, but his pleads with listeners not to illegally download songs because, "even if you're a grandma, or a seven-year-old girl, they'll treat you like the evil hard-bitten criminal scum you are."


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