Record Companies Still Don’t Understand DRM

So, there’s been a lot of news about Qtrax, a new music download service approved by the major record labels. It sounds like a good thing for consumers — a Songbird-based browser lets you select pretty much any song imaginable, including the entire catalog of songs available from iTunes, and download it freely and legally. Now, since it’s peer-to-peer, presumably not every song will be available at first, but they’re all licensed, so as soon as anyone makes them available they will be easy to acquire and free to download. (Though I don’t know for certain; it’s possible that Qtrax has its own server that will share out files if there are no other peers that have them.) The system is ad-supported, with Qtrax turning over most of the ad revenue to the labels in exchange for the licenses.

But here’s the weird part — all the downloads are Windows Rights Management-protected WMA files. There’s DRM on them; you are allowed to put them on a mobile device of your choice, but can’t spread them to other computers. This seems faintly ridiculous — they’re free. What does the DRM prevent you from doing? Copying your free files from one of your computers to another rather than having to pay the price of $0 twice? Giving your free files to others, rather than making them download them for free?

What this will really do is show that customers actually mean it when they say they hate DRM not because it prevents them from pirating media but because it’s simply annoying during the way people use their music. For instance, I place all my music files (ripped from my own CDs) on a central server and then can access them from any computer in the house. With these DRM-protected files, I couldn’t do this; I would have to have a copy of the entire music library on every computer in the house, because each would have different DRM codes.

However, this also demonstrates that the record companies don’t understand how DRM works — they’ve set up the ultimate trusted client scenario. When you download a file, free, from Qtrax, you get both the file and the license key for it. Which means you can just run FairUse4WM (an easy-to-use, free utility) on the file and strip the DRM right off. It’s quick, easy, and instantaneous so long as you have the key — which on a Qtrax download, you do. If you give everyone the keys freely, DRM becomes completely ineffective. In fact, with their Songbird-based architecture, I bet you could even write a plugin for Qtrax that would strip the DRM off automatically using FairUse4WM as you downloaded files.

Anyone who actually wants to pirate music will figure this out. The only people who won’t are, of course, the legitimate end users who just want to listen to music on multiple computers and devices. For those users, getting unprotected music will mean turning to the Pirate Bay.

Updated: it turns out that there is a reason for the DRM, it’s just not to prevent piracy.

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