Online Media and the Death of DRM

Date Published: 07 January 2009

Online Media and the Death of DRM

In one of my recent posts I mentioned that I have a Zune and quite enjoy it as an MP3 player. Prior to it, I swore by my iRiver player, which was *tiny* and ran on just a single AA battery for about 12 hours per battery. One thing I really liked about the iRiver was that you never had to worry about whether or not it had been charged. It was always ready to go, and if it did run out of power, AA batteries were easy to find. However, its capacity (128 MB or 256 MB I forget which) was a bit lacking and it didn’t do games or videos and its software for syncing with my computer was really a pain to use (why they didn’t just make it a freaking drive I don’t understand – I’m sure it was probably under some pressure from somewhere to make it more difficult to share music). Especially while I was in Iraq (and the army in general), being able to run a player, with no moving parts, from just a single AA battery was a huge advantage. Access to power to charge a device was not always a given, and having the small escape of music was often very welcome. A couple of other guys had iPods at the time, but they were always struggling to find a place to charge the things.

MP3 Is King

I’ve never seen any reason to use any music format other than MP3. Anything I happen to get that isn’t in this format, I convert. It’s the ubiquitous language of digital music, and it’s inherently DRM-free. Unless someone comes along with a format that significantly reduces the space required to store music from what MP3 provides, for the same quality, there’s really no reason to use anything else (unless you consider the ability to cripple your access to the contents of the file a feature).

Not long ago, Amazon launched their MP3 store. I checked it out initially and searched for a few songs and was kind of disappointed at the offering. However, a couple of months ago they gave me $5 to spend there (no strings attached) and that was probably a very effective marketing campaign on their part, since it got me to give it another look. Wow, it’s gotten much better. There were several songs I’d been hearing on the radio and wanting to get, and I found every one of them easily. I very quickly spent my free $5 and then some, and now I know that if there’s a song I’m interested in, Amazon probably has it. I use Amazon for probably 80% of my online shopping, so this is one more way they’re able to keep me as a happy customer, returning to their site.

Jeff’s posted a bit about the Zune Pass,and I agree that it’s a great deal for the price. For the cost of one CD per month, you basically get a subscription to millions of songs, and you can listen to whatever you want. This is the only DRM model that I would ever consider spending my money on, since it’s clear from the start that you’re essentially renting access to something, not buying it for your own perpetual use. I don’t think I’ll be getting Zune Pass any time soon, since my annual music purchases tend to be less than $25, but if I were regularly buying music (online or CD), then I’d give it some serious consideration.

Another example of DRM’d media that I’ve used recently is the XBox 360 online video marketplace. I downloaded an HD quality movie Saturday night for a few dollars. Unfortunately, it’s not streaming and the 4.4GB download took over an hour, by which time my wife and I had decided to go to bed, but with a little more forethought next time it would work well (and Netflix via XBox does offer streaming, but their signup requires you go through your PC, not just the XBox, so we lazily decided to try out the XBox video instead). Once you download a movie to your XBox, you have 14 days to watch it, and once you watch it, you have 24 hours to watch it again. So it’s sort of a mixture of a 1-day and a 2-week rental. The quality (720p) was very nice, though I was a bit disappointed that it didn’t offer subtitles like any DVD would (with many movies I find it easier not to miss dialogue if subtitles are on). Note that I have no problem with whatever DRM is in use here – I wasn’t under the impression that I’d bought this content with a perpetual license.

DRM Doom

The Zune Marketplace has recently started offering MP3 downloads. Amazon’s MP3 Store has gone from having a small selection to having virtually anything I’d want to buy. And just this week, even the king of locking people into proprietary formats, Apple, has announced that they plan to make iTunes DRM-free by the end of the year. Apparently there’s been no word on whether or not existing DRM’d music that folks have purchased would have the DRM stripped off (if not, it’s only a matter of time before such content is inaccessible, as eventually whatever infrastructure is in place to allow users access to their DRM content will go by the wayside –it’s happened before).

I’m very pleased to see that iTunes and Zune Marketplace are finally listening to consumers and offering music in a format that allows the user to back it up, listen to it on multiple devices, carry it with them, etc. just like traditional non-digital audio formats have allowed for decades. And kudos again to Amazon for offering a great selection of music via their MP3 store, which I would guess had at least a little bit to do with the iTunes (and perhaps the Zune) decisions.

Steve Smith

About Ardalis

Software Architect

Steve is an experienced software architect and trainer, focusing on code quality and Domain-Driven Design with .NET.