DRM and the iTunes Store

November 1, 2008

Inspired by a great talk by Larry Lessig about how Copyright Law strangles creativity, here’s a little rant about DRM and the iTunes store that turns into a Happy End. (Feel free to skip the rant if you just want to hear the good news).

Back in the 90s, when I was a teenager, my allowance and the money I made from my paper route went  pretty much into either computer or record stores. In the latter I would buy CDs. CDs were great. You could copy them onto a tape, thereby creating one of those legendary mixed tapes that allowed you to endure long car journeys or a day at the beach. Later, you could read audio CDs onto your computer and make your own remixes of your favourite songs or do other silly stuff. Maybe even just listen to the music when lugging around one of those earlier portables. I actually had one of those and the invention of MP3 meant I could bring my favourite CDs on vacation with me by packing just one CD! Life was good.

You could argue that life’s even better today. Now I can buy music off the internet, it’s just a click away. Yes, in a way I enjoyed hanging out in record stores with my mates. But things have changed and we now have fanstatic offerings like last.fm. Feed it with enough information about your musical taste (by “scrobbling” songs while you listen to them) and it’ll happily tell you about artists similar to the ones you already like. It’s like the 2.0 version of your mate that used to take you to record stores. And he’s already made me spend a pretty penny on music. No regrets, though.

Not everything about all this is as great as it sounds. If you’re just a bit IT-literate, then you know what the Digital Millenium Copyrights Act (DMCA) and other similar admendments to copyright law in EU countries have done to the way music has to be consumed these days. It has effectively criminalized circumventing mechanisms that protect music from being copied. With most music available from the iTunes store being protected with a Digital Rights Management (DRM) mechanism, this means no more mixed tapes, no more funky and embarrassing remixes. Yes, I know, you can still make mixed tapes because they’re analogue. What I’m talking about is the equivalent of the mixed tape for the 21st century: a mixed MP3 CD that my car stereo can play or a dirt-cheap MP3 player that I can take jogging with me without risking getting my iPhone/iPod wet and broken. None of those devices can play encrypted AAC files such as the ones you get from the iTunes store and I don’t see why they should have to. The tape deck in my dad’s car stereo didn’t have to either, right?

To give Apple credit, they do allow the mixed tape use case, albeit in a 20th century fashion: you can write DRM’ed tracks to an audio CD a limited number of times. So apparently it’s alright to build DRM circumventing mechanisms into the software if it’s inconvenient enough for the user. Indeed, the EU has encouraged such “voluntary measures” on behalf of the industry in Directive 2001/29/EC (EU equivalent of the DMCA), paragraph (52). So we’re at the hands of what the industry allows to do with the stuff we’ve bought.

Or are we? In Germany at least, circumventing DRM is legal if it’s for personal use (cf. §108b(1) UrhG). Reading Section 1201 which the DMCA added to U.S. Copyright Law, it seems the situation in the U.S. isn’t as favourable, but then again, I’m not a layer. The best news really is, however, that despite the industry’s best efforts, we might not have to live with DRM for much longer. For a while now, there’s music on iTunes that isn’t DRM-protected. MySpace, Amazon and various other people are selling unprotected MP3s as well. So why don’t you buy there, you might ask. Well, for one thing, I actually couldn’t find out how to buy stuff from MySpace. And Amazon.com will only sell MP3 downloads to people located in the U.S. But nevertheless, there’s no denying that DRM hasn’t had the success that the lobbyists had hoped for. I just hope that Apple will see the light and remove it from the iTunes Store altogether.

In the mean time, if you’re in a country that allows the circumvention of DRM mechanisms for private use, you might enjoy Requiem (version 1.8.1 for iTunes 8). It strips the DRM encryption from AAC files, allowing you to convert them to MP3 and thereby use the music you’ve bought in mixed tape scenarious. Unfortunately, due to legal difficulties in the U.S., Requiem currently can’t be obtained from the author’s website. However, both binaries and source code are available from peer-to-peer networks.

9 Responses to “DRM and the iTunes Store”

  1. Stan Says:

    Is the Amazon MP3 store available in Germany? That was the easiest solution for me. As soon as that opened, I stopped giving iTMS my money entirely.

  2. philikon Says:

    Stan: I tried buying stuff from amazon.com but it rejected my German Amazon login. amazon.de isn’t offering MP3 downloads at all right now.

    By the way, what’s with the extra software you need to download files from the Amazon MP3 store? I guess it’s just a convenience thing so that they can compete with iTunes in terms of comfort. I just wish it was optional.

  3. Tim Says:

    I’ve never shopped on the iTunes store precisely because of the DRM. Since discovering the new DRM-free MP3 download service at http://play.com/, I haven’t looked back. I highly recommend it.

  4. philikon Says:

    Tim: After a quick look through play.com’s repertoire it looks to me as if they’re a bit more expensive than everybody else. Currently, Amazon.com seems to have the best offer with most albums at $7.99 or $8.99. iTunes typically sells albums for €9.99 whereas play.com prices them at £9.95. Given the current exchange rates, that’s 25% more than what iTunes charges. In fact, for that money I could buy the actual CD (not that I’d want, though).

  5. Tim Says:

    That may be true. I hadn’t realised that Amazon.com were selling DRM-free downloads when I started using Play.com. Still, I’m in the UK and don’t have a Dollar credit card, so I guess Amazon isn’t really an option for me (yet). I’ve only bought single songs, rather than albums, so far, and I guess 70p is ok for me. Of course, I’d prefer cheaper, but…

  6. Martin Says:

    “Live is good”, huh? But records aren’t that bad, either 😉

    DRM was exactly why I quit using iTMS some months ago… This whole business of making an audio CD from the AACs and then ripping it to mp3 was just too annoying. I returned to buying old fashioned CDs which I can play in my CD changer and in my parent’s car stereo (no support for mp3 there) and which satisfy my haptical needs – I like to touch things I bought.

    Another effect of returning to the good old album on CD: I only buy the discs I like as a whole and stopped throwing money into the music industry’s throat for single overpriced and overhyped songs.

  7. philikon Says:

    Martin: Thanks for catching that typo… Fixed now 🙂

    While I can appreciate that one may enjoy buying an actual product that one can touch, I’m personally tired of accumulating so much junk that fits perfectly well inside my computer if I bought it online. And of course, you also have to do MP3 ripping when you buy CDs.

    With respect to the Burn-then-rip-audio-CD business in order to “free” DRM’ed iTunes music, I’m happy to report that Requiem 1.8.1 works without flaws. And it’s legal in Germany :).

  8. Marshall Says:

    If Apple could publish their catalog without DRM, they would. It’s the record companies that make them do it. See http://www.apple.com/hotnews/thoughtsonmusic/. Of course, Apple, up to now, has accepted their terms…

  9. philikon Says:

    By the way, Requiem 1.8.1 will no longer work after iTunes has been upgraded to 8.0.2.

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