DRM: the 8-track of our time?

David Hunter makes an interesting observation in his remarks about MSN Music’s decision to shut down its licensing servers in August:

DRM schemes for failed download services are like any other failed audio/video format such as 8-track audio tapes or Beta videotapes or HD high-def DVDs – the purchaser is at the mercy of the technology providers and if the business goes south, so does your media collection.

I got rid of my Betamax video tapes decades ago, and thankfully never got into 8-tracks. But the observation is equally true for technologies that are still around today. I have a large collection of cassettes, many with rare and even irreplaceable music on them, but no easy way to play them back. Likewise, I got rid of most of my vinyl LPs years ago. I still have a few boxes out in the garage, but haven’t actually played them in nearly 10 years and can’t imagine the hassles of setting up a turntable today.

What I do find interesting, though, is how digital technology (even with DRM) has improved the longevity of a music collection. In the old days, if an LP got warped or scratched, your only recourse was to buy a new copy. That’s also true of CDs and DVD, which can be rendered worthless if they’re scratched, cracked, lost, or stolen.

Digital media aren’t inherently immune from sudden loss. Keeping a single copy of a digital media file makes it possible to lose that file (or an entire collection) in the time it takes for a hard disk to crash or a stray Delete command to run. On the flip side, though, keeping multiple digital copies in separate physical locations makes it easier to restore all or part of a media collection if it’s lost.

As I noted last week at ZDNet, Microsoft was unbelievably insensitive in its handling of this transition:

So why not make a gesture in the direction of those customers, one that doesn’t involve the middle finger? … How much goodwill and good news coverage could the company buy for 10 or 20 million dollars? Even at Microsoft that’s more than chump change, but it’s a bargain compared to the amount of ill will they managed to generate in one day by offering nothing. Nada. Zero, zip, zilch.

Rob Bennett, Microsoft’s general manager of entertainment, video, and sports for MSN, talked with Greg Sandoval of CNET News.com:

Bennett said that continuing to support the DRM keys was impractical, that the issue only affects a "small number" of people and that focusing exclusively on Zune was the best way to go. He also noted that it wasn’t Microsoft’s decision to wrap music into digital rights management.


"No one ever foresaw being in this situation," Bennett said. "It’s not something we like to do. We want to make it easy and as painless for our customers as possible. We really feel, in the long term, what’s best for people who want to buy music from Microsoft is to move to Zune."

If the MSN Music customer base was truly a "small number" of people and Microsoft wants them to move to the Zune store, then that’s all the more reason for the company to give those customers some sort of compensation.

3 thoughts on “DRM: the 8-track of our time?

  1. Yup. That shutting down is seen as the “middle finger” exactly, everyone I talked to seems to agree. I feel bad for the people who bought that stuff. The Zune DRM is doomed to the same thing I’m convinced. Probably quite a few clueless people will still buy DRM-ed music for a while, but eventually everybody will realize how idiotic DRM is. There is no way around that, even for a huge store like Apple’s.

    I believe the only right way to go about all this is to buy Amazon DRM-free MP3s. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past few months, extremely happy with it. I’m able to listen to my music on the iPod, Media Center, my car with zero hassles… And unless MP3 software disappears from the face of the earth, nothing can prevent me from listening to my music 🙂

  2. This might seem equally harsh (in the opposite direction) but someone at Microsoft ought to be FIRED for this blunder.

    This might be noticed by other media-oriented companies.

    I am tired of being treated like crap by corporations.

  3. Joe, you’re spot on. I’ve been doing the same thing: buying music via Amazon. DRM free makes it a no brainer. And, it’s easy to keep a backup copy in the event of failure or loss.

    As for MSN, I’ll never buy another things from that company. How hard would it have been to compensate the listener/purchaser with the same music from the Zune catalog at a bear minimum? It’s the same reason that I’d never buy a song from iTunes either. I remember how Mac failed me in the late 80s when Jobs walked off the scene.

    Software companies are one trick ponies. They are into selling ever newer versions without ever really fixing the problems of prior versions. Sadly, it’s a monopoly so what’s one to do?

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