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Thank You for Not Playing: Microsoft Expires DRMed Music

Microsoft plans to break their customers’ ability to play MSN Music-purchased songs on computers other than those that are currently authorized after 31-Aug-08. When the Zune was introduced in late 2006, Microsoft abandoned its long-time PlaysForSure digital rights management (DRM) system that embeds information in media to control playback. You can read a lovely, snarky annotation of Microsoft’s letter to its MSN Music purchasers at eWeek Microsoft Watch.

The Zune Marketplace uses a different DRM system that’s compatible with only the Zune. Microsoft currently sells no unprotected music, while Amazon’s entire digital music catalog is DRM-free, and a subset of the iTunes Store is sold without device and playback locks. Geoff Duncan wrote about the new and old DRM systems in “Of the Zune, DRM, and Universal Music,” 2006-11-13.

Users can continue to play MSN Music audio indefinitely on any machine authorized before 31-Aug-08, and can transfer and authorize songs on up to 5 computers total for any one song until that date. However, because Microsoft’s system works on a per-song basis, if someone transferred a large library to another computer, they would need to authorize each song – one source says by starting to play each song, which must be an overstatement – before the August 31st deadline. After that point, music will continue to play only on previously authorized computers. Anyone forced to reinstall Windows, upgrade, or add a new machine is out of luck.

Microsoft suggests burning songs to audio CDs, although it doesn’t mention the necessary second part of that transaction, which is to rip the music back as unprotected MP3, AAC, or even lossless music files.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has challenged Microsoft’s action as part of their long-running battle against DRM. The EFF is not against copyright, ownership, control of usage, royalties, or reasonable limitations. Rather, they believe DRM is an ineffective method to provide such controls, because DRM punishes only those who opt into it by broadly restricting personal use rights that are encoded in both law and judicial decisions. These rights include being able to make reliable backups, play media on any device one owns, and choose when and how to pause and
resume playback; various DRM systems restrict different sets of personal use rights. [Editor’s note: For a detailed academic look at the implications of how the content industries are encapsulating intentionally fluid laws into rigid DRM technologies, see Tarleton Gillespie’s “Wired Shut.” -Adam]

Microsoft is engaged in what many opposed to DRM view as the worst-case scenario: a company sells a lot of media with DRM, then prevents users from continuing to use the media within the constraints imposed on the system, and offers no recompense or reasonable option to work around the shutdown.

What’s odd, of course, is that Microsoft is neither going out of business (obviously) nor shutting down MSN. Rather, they made a business decision to shift their entire protected music approach to a new one because PlaysForSure wasn’t reliable enough for them to eat their own dog food. This also left in the lurch lots of their partners who had stuck with PlaysForSure through thick and thin.

It’s a crummy decision. Microsoft could have used technology to unlock all the music purchased, even if that required them to make additional payments to the copyright holders. They could have chosen to run their DRM authorization servers indefinitely. They could have done lots of things. Instead, they chose the worst possible solution.

The EFF suggests that Microsoft either refund all purchases or provide DRM-free replacements. They also make the implicit point that given the aggressive tactics used by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which includes filing suits against dead people and grandmothers without computers, Microsoft should provide full documentation of purchases so that if their users choose to burn music to CD, they could later prove that they legitimately purchased that music.

I don’t know of any individuals who enjoy DRM; this move certainly strengthens the hands of all DRM opponents by providing a case in point: the day the music died.

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