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Man, I Hate DRM

April 2nd, 2007 · 8 Comments · Digital Preservation

Source: Julian Bond. Restrictions: none, released into public domainWell that was a waste of time. I tracked down and bought a song that I had heard several times recently (on my favourite Internet radio station SomaFM) only to have it locked up by draconian DRM technology. There is no way that I am introducing this digital mutation into my personal digital archive. I am totally convinced that, thanks to Digital ‘Restrictions’ Management encryption, this track will be useless five years down the road when I am using a whole new platform of PCs and MP3 players.

I am an avid music fan. My music collection is just as valuable to me as my family photograph collection. It has very much the same function. Music is a constant backdrop to my daily life. Certain songs or genres define whole periods of my personal history. They can evoke detailed memories of experiences, emotions, people and places from my past. They scroll by like a grainy home movie in my head as the song plays. I use the music in my collection to enhance or change my moods and to create soundtracks to brand new experiences that will form my future memories. Therefore, I am determined to preserve and protect my music collection like any other collection of archival materials.

Foiled by DRM

So why did I buy the DRM track in the first place? (a) Impulse: I really, really had to have it, right now, and it wasn’t available for purchase on any non-DRM websites (b) DRM trickery: the icons placed next to track indicated that I could copy it unlimited times and transfer it to three different MP3 players. What it didn’t clarify (except for some fine print tucked away on another page) was that all the playback, copying and transferring functionality was limited to the actual machine which I used for the download, which happened to be my office laptop.

By default, the file transfered automatically from my office laptop to my home PC using my synchronization and backup setup. On my home PC is where I like to relax and organize my music collection like a good obsessive-compulsive archivist. I was really p!ssed off, therefore, when I sat down later that evening to listen to my must-have track and transfer it to my MP3 player for the morning workout, only to find out that the ‘license’ wasn’t applicable to that machine and I couldn’t do squat with it.

I should have know better. For a moment the music fan in me got the better of the digital archivist. The basics of DRM (hardware-dependence, encryption, proprietary formats) goes against all the digital preservation basic practices. First of all, your digital collection needs to exist independent of the media and hardware which is required to store and use the content because they will be obsolete or incompatible in a few years. On top of that, the laptop itself is leased from Dell and will be shipped back to them in a couple of years, along with my ‘unlimited copying’ ability. Turns out I hadn’t bought the song. I hadn’t even leased it like my laptop. I had contracted it to perform certain specific services, in specific locations, in a limited number of predetermined ways. When did being a music fan get to be so complicated?

Digital Rights Go Both Ways

To be sure, I fully support the artist’s right to get reimbursed for their work and creativity. That’s why I wasn’t trolling the P2P world for an ‘unauthorized’ copy in the first place. I am more than happy to pay $0.99 for a track that I can download and enjoy instantly on my computer or MP3 player. When I am interested in a band or song, I’ll visit their website or MySpace page to check out some more of their songs. If I like 3 or 4 of the tracks, I’ll buy the album. If I don’t, I just want to buy the track, preferably straight from the band, their label, or a non-DRM service such as eMusic.com.

However, once I’ve bought the track I expect to own it as a piece of property, just like when I buy a book or physical CD. Instead, DRM technology actually violates standard Western property laws. Imagine a dealer selling you a car and then refusing to give you the keys. Of course, I don’t own the copyright on the track but I expect to have fair use of it to allow me to create backup copies for preservation purposes, to transfer the files to any playback device of my choosing and to burn mix CDs to share with friends. I personally don’t consider sharing over a P2P network to be fair use because I don’t know any of the people that I am ‘sharing’ with and, of course, selling bootleg copies of CDs is and should be illegal.

Preservation Format

As well as being free of restrictions enforced by encryption, when I add a music file to my personal digital archives I want it in a format that is suitable for long-term preservation. As of today, that happens to be MP3, not Apple iTunes’ proprietary AAC or Microsoft’s proprietary WMA format. MP3 is technically not an open-standard because there a number of patent challenges against it but, like PDF for documents, it is the de-facto archival standard for music files because of its ubuquity and its registration as an ISO standard. Technically speaking both Open Document Format and Ogg Vorbis are more open than PDF and MP3 respectively but this is where there is a trade-off between the purity of an ‘open’ standard and the ubiquity of tools, support and fellow users. When MP3 is no longer the best option for long-term preservation, there will be plenty of migration tools and bridge technologies because of the format’s widespread use. More importantly, I can’t play Ogg Vorbis files on my MP3 Player.

Common Sense at the Library and Archives of Canada?

Because of the problems with hardware-dependence, encryption and proprietary formats, institutional digital archives typically refuse to accession digital objects that have any DRM technology associated with them. The Library and Archives of Canada has recently enacted rules that require publishers to remove all DRM encryption for published digital files that they submit, as required by law, for legal deposit at LAC. This is just standard digital preservation common sense. If security is a concern, it needs to be applied at the repository level not the item level. There is no way that an archives can efficiently manage, in perpetuity, all the encryption keys that accompany each individual file.

If the LAC has enacted such a common-sense rule to protect the nation’s digital information, why should my personal digital archives be managed to any lesser standards? The song I purchased has entered my mindspace. It is part of how I experienced March 2007 and how I choose to remember it. I need it in my music collection. I need it to be there when I want to enjoy the song again and to relive March 2007 as part of the constant dialog between past and present that my music collection facilitates. However, as a WMA file with DRM it is effectively locked up using a combination of elliptic curve cryptography key exchange, the DES block cipher, the RC4 stream cipher, and the SHA-1 hashing function. Good luck preserving access to that.


So what options do I have? I can pay $15.99 for a CD which will take a couple of weeks to arrive and from which I only want one track. I can step into the P2P back-alleys and see if someone in the network is willing to ‘share’ the song with me. By the way, in Canada that’ s currently legal. When I bought my MP3 player I paid a levy to cover that (like the one on blank cassettes and CDs). I can also download a hacker tool that is able to open the encrypted file I purchased and then save an unencrypted copy of it. I don’t think that is legal though. Definitely not in the U.S. thanks to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

The End of DRM?

At least the distribution channels are waking up to the poor logic of alienating law-abiding consumers like me. Both iTunes and Puretracks are trying to convince the big 5 music labels that it is in everyone’s best interest to drop DRM. However, music publishers and their goons at the RIAA are so freaked out by the democratization of music that they’d rather sue 10 years old to bully the music-loving public into submission.

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Peter Van Garderen // Apr 2, 2007 at 2:08 pm

    Wow, that was quick. I guess EMI read my blog post today and decided immediately to release their catalog without DRM restrictions. This blogging thing is really cool.

    Seriously, good for EMI. This will help their business AND the fans of their bands.

  • 2 CW // Apr 2, 2007 at 7:56 pm

    Thanks for this great summary of the problems with DRM and music! :)

  • 3 Jen // Apr 4, 2007 at 7:45 am

    Thanks for the review on DRM and mp3 files. An interesting take on it from the view of an archivist!

  • 4 Andrew // Apr 6, 2007 at 5:58 am

    Just one small correction: WMA is proprietary to Microsoft, but AAC is not proprietary to Apple. The DRM that Apple uses (Fairplay) IS proprietary to them, but AAC itself is an open standard maintained by the MPEG group. (technically it is called “MPEG-4 Audio”) This is why many devices play AAC files (including Microsoft’s Zune.)

    MP3 is a very patent-encumbered file format, and the quicker it dies, the better the world will be. AAC is more open, maintained by an actual standards group, and doesn’t cost per-track royalties when distributing songs encoded in it.

  • 5 Peter Van Garderen // Apr 6, 2007 at 6:57 am

    Thanks for that correction Andrew. Yes, I guess I meant to say Apple’s .m4p format which, as you point out, is the non-proprietary MPEG-4 AAC or .m4a format but with Apple’s Fairplay DRM encryption tacked on.

    It appears that many other MP3 manufacturers are beginning to support AAC. However, after Apple, Creative is probably the largest MP3 player manufacturer and they have yet to come around. The Creative Zen Vision:M player that I bought just a few months ago only supports MP3, WMA and WAV audio formats.

    Nevertheless, AAC is the other legitimate candidate, along with Ogg Vorbis, to replace MP3 as the de-facto standard for music files. Thanks for pointing it out.

  • 6 Andrew // Apr 6, 2007 at 7:20 am

    I know there is a lot of underground support for OGG, but the one thing that turns me off about it is its lack of official standardization. I just had a look at the Vorbis wikipedia entry and the OGG website and I could not find a reference to any ISO standard number for it.

    I could very well be wrong, though.

    One thing that I think I remember reading somewhere, but can’t find the source for right now, is that Vorbis was eschewing official standardization because they felt that this was much to slow a process, and would hinder the nimbleness of an audio codec. While I agree in principle, for a) corporations and b) preservationists, this may well be a significant drawback. As either of those bodies, I would like to see an organization with some weight behind it as the maintaining body and some guaranteed longevity and a minimal amount of documentation, over technical superiority, nimbleness, and a group of people that could lose interest and/or fold up overnight. Having the source code available is a very good incentive, but I feel it needs to go one step further in order to be seriously considered for archival purposes.

    If it did go through ISO (or similar) standardization, I would jump on it in a heartbeat.

  • 7 Peter Van Garderen // Apr 6, 2007 at 8:21 am

    Ogg Vorbis is NOT an ISO standard and I doubt it ever will be.

    However, as I mention in the article above, MP3 (aka ‘MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3′) is an ISO standard which, for now, is one of the factors that makes it the de-facto format, in particular for the reason you just mentioned.

  • 8 Jason Thompson // Jul 13, 2007 at 12:07 pm

    I had always approached the DRM issue from a personal standpoint. The archival issues had never even occured to me. Fascinating. Yet another piece of ammunition to use in dinner party arguments with the rare pro-DRM members of my social circles.