An Article from Aaron's Article ArchiveBad DRM, Bad DRM! Good Open Formats, Good Open Formats!
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Bad DRM, Bad DRM! Good Open Formats, Good Open Formats!
Wednesday, 10 September 2003 11:39 PM MDT
Ok, this just bugs me. In this modern day of the Internet, I really, REALLY would like to be able to buy and download an audiobook, then be able to enjoy it. While browsing Amazon.com's web site, I notice that they offer audiobooks for download from Audible.com. Sweet, I think and so I swing over to that site.
Now I'm intimately familiar with the very negative problems DRM (Digital Rights Management) can cause. If you don't know what DRM is, it's a means whereby copyright holders release digital products (audio files, movie files, documents, pictures, books, etc. -- anything in digital format) only in an encrypted format that can ONLY be decrypted and displayed or used with a special computer program or item of computer hardware. The idea is that this protects the copyright owner from having their work distributed or copied without authorization. It sounds like a good idea at first, but it turns out to be very rotten.
Recently I signed up for an account at buymusic.com, to try out their music service.
I ran into the first problem just going to their web site. Their web service and web site absolutely will not work with my normal web browser. I use the excellent and highly recommended Mozilla Firebird web browser, which is just about the best browser around these days, far better than Microsoft's buggy and insecure Internet Explorer. But in order to even see anything but an error page on buymusic.com's web site, I had to switch back to buggy Internet Explorer. Ug!
That wasn't all! Next I had to go through some convolutions to upgrade my installed version of Windows Media Player to work with their site. If I weren't comfortable using computers, I would have given up completely.
At last I was able to sign up for an account and browse their online catalog. Sadly, they make the same mistake almost every other music site does. Their sample music clips sounded awful. How will i even know if I want to buy a song if I can't hear a good sound clip?
I found a song I wanted, Nora Jones' Don't Know Why from her Come Away With Me album. I downloaded it to my laptop.
At last! I was ready to hear the song. I use WinAmp as my normal music file player. It can play MP3 files, Ogg Vorbis files, and WMA files. The downloaded file was a WMA file. I opened it up using WinAmp. Now I should note here that I was expecting this to fail, because I figured Microsoft's WMA DRM technology wouldn't work with WinAmp as the player.
I was right! WinAmp couldn't play the file, so I had to resort to loading up the cumbersome and ugly Microsoft Windows Media player instead. But even it couldn't immediately play the file! Windows Media Player first had to contact a server on the Internet, and I had to enter my buymusic.com account information. What if I'd downloaded the song, disconnected from the Internet, then tried to play it? I would never have been able to hear the music I'd just bought and paid for. This is a problem with many DRM techniques, and an annoying one.
When at last the song played, I was happy! It sounded okay on the laptop's little built-in speakers. The next test would be to play it on my desktop comuter, with it's much nicer speakers.
That turned out to be an exercise in futility. After copying the file to my desktop system, I opened it with Windows Media Player. It asked me for the buymusic.com information. I faithfully typed it in. Then... No go! It would not play.
So I backtracked to buymusic.com, kicked off an e-mail to them. It turns out, they only sell DRM music files that will play on a single computer and no other computer, ever, even if you own it. And it turns out that this little fact was buried in the fine print on their web site. Useless, I think! I can only listen to the file I paid for on my laptop.
And then big music corporations wonder why people all over the U.S. are sharing music files illegally. I do not condone violating copyright by distributing unauthorized files this way. But from my own frustration trying to use legal online music download services, I can totally understand why no one wants to pay money for a service that stinks. I won't. I will never use buymusic.com again. Ever. And I recommend to my family and friends that they stay away from it to.
So what does this have to do with Audible.com's audio books? Once bitten, twice shy, the cliche goes. I read over their web site with great skepticism. If I bought an audiobook online and downloaded it, I sure had better be able to listen to it on any computer I owned, as well as my cheapo MP3 player. I also should be able to burn a CD with the audio on it and listen to it on any one of my CD players, including my car CD player.
After a little digging on Audible.com's site, I see that only certain MP3 players are supported. They also mention using specific MP3 player software on PCs as well. That leads me to believe that their files are encrypted with some sort of DRM technology, and DRM means I can't use it the way I want.
Sure enough, a little google search revealed other people had bad encounters with Audible.com's DRM encrypted files, unable to burn CDs or use the files they paid for.
The only DRM-enabled system that has any hope for success is Apple's iTunes system, which, sadly, is currently only available for Apple Macintosh owners. Their slick user interface hides the ugly details of DRM encryption, and mostly just works. They also allow playback of their files on up to three different computers.
But even their system bugs me. After I buy something, I want to be able to use it any way I choose (and I'm talking legal use here), playing it on any computer or audio player device I use, burning CDs if I choose. So I guess I'll stick to buying non-DRM stuff, like good old-fashioned CDs, which I can legally rip and archive, reencoding the sound in MP3 and OGG Vorbis format.
When will I sign up for another online audio download service? When I can download competitively priced files that are full CD quality (even Apple's iTunes uses a lossfully compressed not-quite-full-CD quality scheme), and completely unencumbered by DRM, or if they are DRM encrypted, using a scheme that can be legally cracked and removed so that I can enjoy the music (or video, text, or other downloaded electronic document or information) in the way I want, when I want, using whatever software or equipment I want.
So, if you want to make some money, set up a music service that does just that. I will sign up in a heart-beat, and gladly pay you money.
Looks like I got carried away. But it just bugs me, the whole DRM thing. It reeks of treating customers like criminals, instead of offering quality service at reasonable prices. Somehow I think the second method will inspire people to behave honestly.
A similar, related issue is the use of proprietary file formats for storing information. Microsoft Word stores files in proprietary formats, even when the contents of those files is not owned by Microsoft. (Hey, I wrote the document, so I own the copyright!) That's why I am so grateful for projects like OpenOffice, a free (yes, free!) office suite, including word processor and spreadsheet, that saves documents in a well-documented and open format. That means that 100 years from now, even if OpenOffice no longer exists, someone would be far more likely to figure out how to read the data in a document, even if they don't have a copy of OpenOffice.
I hope that government and publically funded institutions will adopt a policy of only using software that stores information in open formats, formats that are publically documented and free from any patent or other encumberance that would prohibit interoperability with other software. Otherwise, we the public run the risk of data collected or created by institutions we fund becoming unreadable if ever the software vendor goes out of business. Or worse, our public institutions will then be permanently enslaved to a single software vendor, afraid to change vendors for fear of existing documents becoming unreadable.
Don't say it won't happen. What about you? Would you dare switch to another word processor, even if it had exactly the same features your current one has, or if it were superior, if you could not then open existing documents? I didn't think so.
It's a sneaky lock-in technique, and a certain Redmond software company is executing it very well. Their upcoming office products will add DRM to the mix, making lock-in even scarier. Imagine discovering that a document you wrote 5 years ago in 2003 would become unreadable if you didn't buy a new upgrade from that same software company? Okay, the PR nightmare for the company will probably stop this worst-case scenario from ever happening, but much more minor lock-in problems will and do occur.
Now that I've said this, let me set the record straight. I don't hate Microsoft. In fact, I use Windows XP Professional a lot. Sure it has some weaknesses, but I like it overall. I will continue to buy Microsoft products that meet my needs so long as they don't lock me in to proprietary document formats.
I also am not anti-DRM. I think there are some excellent uses for Digital Rights Managment systems. I believe that existing DRM uses are totally reasonable from the copyright holder's standpoint. But I, as a consumer, choose not to pay money for them, because it's a bad deal for the consumer.
P.S. Since my buymusic.com bad experience, I bought the Come Away With Me CD. If I were crazy or insane enough to waste a lot of time, I'd pester buymusic.com for a refund, since I now have a DRM-free unencrypted version of the song that I can play on any of my computers, my stereo, or in my car.