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Audio File Concatenation: Driven to Distraction by DRM

As I wrote in "iPods Defeating Insomnia" in TidBITS-768, Tonya and I like to listen to audio books on our iPod to help us fall asleep at night. After about seven months, we moved on from Bill Bryson’s "A Short History of Nearly Everything" to his "In a Sunburned Country" (all about Australia, one of our favorite countries), which we purchased from via the iTunes Music Store. Whereas I was able to download the first audio book in three 6-hour chunks, this one came in five 2.5-hour files, and figuring out which file you’re in can be a bit annoying, even if you give them shorter names that display the part number up front. If I was dealing with cassette tapes or even CDs, I’d just grin and bear it, but these files are pure bits – surely I should be able to join them together into a single big file? It wasn’t quite that easy, as it turned out.


All Together Now — iTunes has a Join CD Tracks command, but when I selected the five tracks in iTunes and looked in the Advanced menu, Join CD Tracks was grayed out. Apparently, its name is quite accurate; it works only on tracks on an actual CD, not those that already exist in your iTunes Library or even as AIFF files on disk. I briefly considered burning audio CDs of the book files, but since each file was about 150 minutes, it didn’t seem worth the effort to figure out how to burn 70-minute CDs, and even if I did, I couldn’t see how I’d be able to join tracks from multiple CDs. Drat!

Next, I turned to the wonderful Doug’s AppleScripts for iTunes site, which seemingly has a script for every problem in iTunes. It didn’t disappoint, turning up Join Together, which promises to concatenate AAC files. It needs QuickTime Pro 7.0.1, but I could get that if necessary. Unfortunately, disappointment reappeared quickly when I read the release notes, which commented that the script wouldn’t work with protected AAC files. Curses!

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Perplexed, I asked some friends about the problem. One of them had just stumbled across a beta of iTunesJoin, which sounded as though it would do exactly what I needed. My glee was short-lived though, as I read through the program’s description. Although iTunesJoin (which is actually a collection of AppleScript scripts) can join AAC files for use on the iPod, and it can even join protected AAC files (by merging them into a QuickTime movie), the two capabilities are mutually exclusive and a file of joined protected AAC files can’t be played on the iPod. Strike three!


Now I was annoyed, and it was all the fault of Apple’s FairPlay digital rights management (DRM) code, which wasn’t seeming at all fair, and it certainly wasn’t playing nice. So I decided that if Apple was going to treat me like a criminal, I’d do my best to live up to it by employing JHymn, a tool that is undoubtedly in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act because it enables you to remove the FairPlay DRM restrictions with no loss of quality. Since my goal is purely to turn five files into one for my own private use, I wasn’t particularly concerned with JHymn’s legality, but as it turned out, iTunes 6.0 made some changes to FairPlay that prevent JHymn from working, so it wasn’t an option for me anyway. Foiled again!



The entire situation was starting to get personal. I don’t want to concatenate all that many files, but once I’d hit upon joined tracks as a way to make the iPod easier to use at night when I’m tired and nearsightedly trying to navigate the iPod’s interface, I felt certain that it had to be possible. That’s when I remembered Rogue Amoeba’s excellent Audio Hijack Pro, which can record anything you can hear to a new file. There might be a loss of quality, but since my original files contained merely Bill Bryson’s voice, dynamic range wasn’t an issue.


First, I created a temporary playlist of the five audiobook tracks, sorted by name so they were in order. Next, I made sure that iTunes wouldn’t be shuffling the tracks, or repeating them after it finished the first play-through, and I verified that each track would start playing at the beginning. In Audio Hijack Pro, I selected iTunes, set the format to AAC at 32 Kbps mono, and clicked the Record button before switching back to iTunes and starting it playing. And then, because it was 7 PM at night, I hit the Mute button on my keyboard so we didn’t have to listen to Bill Bryson’s voice from my office all night long, and left Audio Hijack Pro to listen to, and record, 11 hours and 54 minutes of audio to a completely new file. By the time I sat down at my Mac the next morning, I had the single file I wanted.

This solution was by no means elegant, but it worked, and for the limited number of times I expect to use it, playing an entire audio book in real time overnight isn’t particularly onerous. Thanks to the Rogue Amoeba folks for making this possible!

Drat that DRM! Situations like this show why DRM solutions are inherently problematic. If the end result of a set of digital steps is something that you can see or hear, there’s always a point at which it can be copied with sufficient application of desire and equipment. But what’s most annoying is that I didn’t want to do anything that any normal person would consider illegal or even unethical. Creating a copy for personal use wouldn’t likely run afoul of copyright law, and the Audio Home Recording Act of 1992 nominally allows "noncommercial use by a consumer of such a device or medium for making digital musical recordings or analog musical recordings." But all of this is trumped by the DMCA, which makes it illegal to circumvent DRM restrictions, whether or not the proposed use would be considered fair use under copyright law. (See "Why DRM Offends the Sensibilities" in TidBITS-769 and "The Evil That Is the DMCA" in TidBITS-656 for more.)

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And so, once again, a perfectly reasonable and legal activity, and one that should have been a matter of a few moments’ work, is rendered clumsy and obtuse by DRM. Thanks, Apple! FairPlay didn’t stop me from making my iPod easier to use with content I purchased from the iTunes Music Store, but it sure wasted a lot of my time, and I’m annoyed enough to post the result of my concatenation efforts to the peer-to-peer file sharing networks. I would never do such a thing, of course, since that would violate the intent of copyright law, and very few people – myself included – have any beef with the intent of copyright. But until sanity prevails and DRM doesn’t involve vast collateral damage to pre-existing rights and common sense, I’m going to be buying more from venues that don’t employ DRM, which, I fear, will mean fewer purchases from the iTunes Music Store.

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