Friday, December 15, 2006

DRM - The last breath from the era of Record LabelsIn the recent years, the major record labels have tried to maintain their stronghold on the world of music.

The record labels has had a major role in the launch of new artists. As an artist, it is usually a sure path to success, when you get signed by a record label. Unfortunately the world is changing, and so is the way music is transported and used.

The evolution of music usage

Back in the day, music was on LP's, then MC's, then CD's. All these containers needed a physical transport, and a physical (retail) outlet. So, as a new artist, it is close to impossible to walk up to a retail-chain and ask them to sell your CD. That makes sense, as it is usually hard to sell CD's from unknown artists. So, the way in, is using a record label, which has the distribution and marketing deals set up.


When Napster came about, the record labels saw digital copying as a competitor. The RIAA (and other local branches) invented the word "pirates", and started telling people that they were stealing music. They continue to do this, even though "pirating" is technically "copyright infringement", and NOT stealing. If you wonder about the differences between the two, stealing is an act where an item is physically taken from another person, and copyright infringement is copying an item without the copyright holders permission. Stealing is a matter investigated by the police, where copyright infringement is a matter between to legal persons in civil court.

The American Way - See you in court

Napster gave MP3's and Digital Music a bad image, at least from the perspective of Record Labels. So ever since Napster, RIAA has used all means to prosecute individuals who make digital copies, right down to sueing soccer-moms for gigantic amounts. The reason that the law allows these huge amounts, is that the laws are target CD shops, and not a home filesharers.

The CD shop is the kind of persons/enterprise who purchase a CD, and then copies labels, covers etc. and then reproduces this in great numbers, which is then sold to gas stations and the like, often going as being original/legal material.
Most laws passed, are targeting the CD shop, yet RIAA uses these same laws to procecute filesharers.

Protect your assets

To reduce amount of copying, the Record Labels have tried to limit the ways that consumers can use their legally purchased music. All these attemps have failed and mostly backfired. The reason for these failures are very easy to see, once you have tried using music in a real environment.

First of all, music is avalible in CD format, so whatever new thing comes up, it will have to compare with CD's.
Next, the music is avalible for free downloading, so that has to be a factor also.
Finally, people use music in a myriad of ways, MP3 players, Computers, Stereo, Car, etc...

Method 1 - Protect the CD's

The first thing the Record Labels have done, is to try to protect CD's. That will always fail, simply because the CD format is an international standard, and has NO way to protect the content. Every now and then, a new CD protection method pops up, and there is always problems with it not playing in certain CD players. Secondly, it is not possible to prevent the music from being played, and at the same time being played, on the same equipment. So in all cases, a person will be able to put up a microphone near the speakers, and record the output. Almost all copy protection schemes can be broken in a simpler way, because the decryption/authentication has to happen on the playing device, and that device is beyond the control of the authors.

So, that method won't work, but why do they try it anyway? Well, if you can't get the music of the CD, you can't copy it. But if you can't get it of the CD, you must use a CD player. That might be fine for some people, but I personally likes to hear music on my cellphone, and it doesn't come with a CD drive. So such a CD is 100% worthless to me. Some of these schemes are a little more gratefull, and allows me to copy the music a few times, but thats just plain stupid. After a few times use, the CD is worthless, and I have to re-buy my use of the CD.

One very funny (and outrageous) case, is the case of the Sony Rootkit.
In this particular case, Sony used the XPC software, which installs as a rootkit, when inserted into a PC running Windows, regardless of the users choice on the EULA.
The rootkit was discovered by Mark Russinovich, and inserts noise when the CD is played from anything but the Sony player. This case is interresting, because Sony belives they had a right to do this, because they were protecting their property. A Sony spokesperson even said "Most people don't even know what a rootkit is, why should they care?". The case is also funny, because the protection only works on a PC with windows, so any user with access to a Linux or Mac computer, may copy it freely.

I have read that some Record Label people claim that the DRM is to be considered a guideline for legal use. Thats just plain lying. A guideline would be a messagebox saying "You are making copy 3 of this CD. You may be violating copyright laws, do you want to continue?". A DRM system is NOT a guideline!

Method 2 - Protect the files

The second approach, is to supply digital files with DRM protection. The idea is that the DRM ensures that the file is only playable on an approved device. Also there can be limitations on number of CD's burned and number of times played, etc. DRM protected files suffer two major problems:
  • They limit the ways the files can be used

  • They require authentication with a DRM server

The first problem is usually the worst. If I buy an iPod, purchase some music from the iTunes store, and later the iPod becomes broken, I have to either buy a new iPod, or re-buy all my music. Thats just plain stupid, and I can't imagine why anyone would EVER do that. Ohh, and you can forget all about playing your favorite music under linux.
The second problem is even worse: what if Apple goes bankrupt? Or decides to close the iTunes store. Well, you can't reactivate your music, which is required when you move it to another device. Again, re-buy your music, but this time it's all out of your hands. Again, I cannot imagine why anyone would pay for that.

CD Problems

So, what is wrong with CD's?

Well, in my household, we have the following music capable devices:
  • PC's with Windows,

  • PC's with Linux

  • An MP3 capable phone

  • A Sansa Music Player

  • An IPod

If I want to play my purchased music on all these devices, there is only one format: MP3. Not even CD's can play on all these. In fact I never play music directly from CD's, so I would benefit greatly from buying music digitally.
Why do I have to go to a store, search through stacks of CD's, pay for transport and manufacturing, when I go home an rip it before I play it?
It doesn't make any sense.

What to do

If Record Labels would start paying attention, they would realise, that MP3 files are at the same protection level as CD's, there is no need to add extra security to MP3 files. However, it is very easy to record a watermark into each sold song, uniquely identifying the original customer. If that file ever ends up in a filesharing network, it would be easy to locate the origin.
If this practice is adopted, the Record Labels could end up saving a lot of cash, because they can simply stop all the CD presses, avoid all the costly distribution, stop paying DRM fees, and concentrate on marketing and recording studios.
And that makes a lot of sense, since it is something they are good at!

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