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Thread: Format Wars, Standards & Competition

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You underestimate the power of the Dark Side!

The MP3 DRM War


Chronogical Blog Entries:



Date: Wed, 07 Jan 2009 16:14:11 +1100

Well dear reader, your humble blogger must confess that in days gone by a lot of time and effort was put into listening to and purchasing recorded music. These days, however, I don't purchase all that much recorded music. There is lots of good music on FM and on DIG Internet radio, occasionally some late night TV, and even less occasionally, a CD purchase.

A couple of weeks ago there was a show on TV called "Live From Abbey Road". One of the songs featured in the show was called "Shine On Babylon" by Sheryl Crow. Your humble blogger was very impressed with the song and the singer. By themselves the music, the excellent backing band and the song-writing could have stood on their own. But with the benefit of a visual medium, it becomes apparent that Sheryl Crow is also very easy on the eye.

The next day your humble blogger went along to a local shopping mall and inquired at a little CD outlet about the song "Shine On Babylon". But they hadn't heard of it. Did they know about the Abbey Road session? No, they didn't.

Well there are bigger and better CD outlets in the metropolis of Melbourne. But Hey! These days it's easier to just look online! I found a copy of the song on iTunes, and did something that I have never done before. I purchased a song from them. And thanks to the experience, which I am about to relate, I may never do it again.

Now, I should explain that even though I am the reasonably happy owner of a Mac Pro 2, most of my computers run Linux. And the media players in our house are generic. I prefer listening to music with Amarok, and I find the sound quality of music ripped from a CD to the open source .ogg format to be quite acceptable and very convenient. They can easily be transformed to MP3 for generic players.

In any case, I thought I may as well try iTunes. After all, it is the most popular music distribution channel on the planet. Of course I realised that there might be some complications copying the song from iTunes to Amarok, but I didn't expect it to be all that difficult. I had heard rumours of a software package which circumvents Apple's DRM and I thought something like that would enable me to convert the file to MP3 and then I would be able to play it on my Linux machines.

Now, there is one other thing I have noticed over the past year or two. I have noticed that iTunes appears to be one of the most regularly updated packages on the Mac platform. There seems to be a minor version at least once a month. And another thing I have noticed since upgrading to Leopard is that the upgrade tool doesn't make it obvious that I have the option of upgrading separate components as it used to do. It now seems to offer the choice of upgrading or not upgrading, and only by saying "No", do you then get to go into the options of what to upgrade and what not to upgrade. And now it seems that these earlier observations may have been portentous.

And perhaps a little bit of additional background I might add, for readers who aren't up to date with the technical details, Apple use a system called FairPlay. This name was created, apparently without even a hint of irony, by the marketing division of Apple to describe the encryption scheme which is applied to all songs downloaded with iTunes.

Since the encryption scheme was implemented there has arisen quite a few methods of cracking the encryption, most of them based on a package called PlayFair (irony obviously intended). However, as a result of legal action by Apple, PlayFair had a rather short life. It was, in effect, strangled almost at birth. And yet other progeny live on. The code from PlayFair has lately morphed into Hymn ( Hear Your Music aNwhere).

And it seems that Apple has vigorously pursued Hymn with cease and desist orders. It is difficult to get a copy of the source code, and it is not available as an Ubuntu package. And many of the upgrades to the iTunes client were mostly counter strategies aimed at packages like Hymn.

However, even if I did get the latest copy of hymn, which was going to be very difficult, since it was illegal in the USA, it wouldn't work with my version of iTunes! Because I had been so dilligent about updating Apple Mac software! This was all becoming too much effort for one song!

Now because your humble blogger is law-abiding, you won't find details of how to break Apple's DRM on this website. And it seems that most of the people in the Open Source community are also law abiding (even though the DMCA is anti-competitive, based on an incorrect interpretation of the law and a lack of understanding about what software is).

Of course there are numerous other means of transforming the files. You could burn them to a CD (bit of waste for one song, though), or you could get some software that installs a virtual CD, to trick iTunes into burning the CD to memory. Then you can get some ripping software to transform the CD to MP3.

In the meantime, work on the anti-DRM projects continues, mostly done by people, who believe (as does your humble blogger) that citizens are entitled to Fair Use, as was originally defined during the Great Cassette War, last century.

And a lot of this work has leaked into the mainstream. Many microsofties, who are generally less law-abiding are busily distributing software that breaks Apple's DRM, or which circumvents it with virtual CDs. And while Apple seems to have put a lot of effort into going after the GNU distributions, they haven't managed to damp down the black-market trade in microsoft-compatible anti-DRM products. And since they don't have the same control over Microsoft versions of iTunes, the whole thing seems like a tin of worms. The best that Apple can hope for is to keep one step ahead of the new DRM-cracking code.

So it seems that we may have to fight another format war, rather like the Great Cassette War, and try to re-assert our rights of fair use. This time the battle lines are different, the technology is faster, generic technology (the challenger) is superior to the established (proprietary) technology, the profit margins are much fatter (almost obscenely so), and most critically, the locking mechanism relies on software not hardware.

And this time, it seems that that the American legal system is more kindly disposed to incumbents then it is to consumers.

Nevertheless, your humble blogger expects the looming MP3 War to be over much more quickly than the Great Cassette War of last century. Since it is going to be a software war, the proprietary owners have about as much chance of winning as some celluloid cats chasing a plague of asbestos rats through hell ... i.e. not much. And if they can't survive in the new market they should just get out of it altogether.

It seems that lawyers and judges aren't the only ones who don't understand what software is.

In the meantime, I will go and purchase a CD of the gorgeous and very talented Sheryl Crow.


Update

Almost at the same time, that your humble blogger composed this blog entry, Apple have announced that they are dropping DRM from many of the items that are sold on iTunes.

This format war might be over sooner then we all thought. However, Apple are still downgrading the quality of MP3 files that are exported from iTunes. So the best value may still be the option of purchasing CDs (or an online site that offers quality MP3s).


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