Intellectual Property

The Day the Music Dies

Why your tunes won't PlayForSure

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This fall customers of the now-defunct MSN Music Store, Microsoft's abortive attempt to compete with iTunes, will be in for a nasty surprise: They will no longer be able to transfer their music to new computers. Worse, thanks to the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), no one else will be allowed to give them tools to work around the problem.

Someone in Microsoft's marketing department must have a dark sense of humor, because just four years ago the company started calling its digital music format, its proprietary method for downloading, storing, and playing digital music, "PlaysForSure." The name was intended to highlight the fact that, in contrast to the iTunes-iPod combo, PlaysForSure was supported by dozens of music stores and device manufacturers. Songs purchased from Rhapsody, Yahoo! Music, or the MSN Music Store could be enjoyed on players manufactured by Samsung, Dell, Sony, or Creative.

In spite of this, Apple's iPod continued to outsell all the PlaysForSure players put together. So Microsoft reshuffled its strategy in 2006, releasing a new music player called the Zune. Convinced that the tight integration between iTunes and the iPod was the secret to Apple's success, Microsoft abandoned the PlaysForSure approach, shuttered the MSN Music Store, and built the Zune around yet another proprietary format.

As a result, music in the PlaysForSure format will not play—for sure or otherwise— on a Zune music player. Up to here this is just an ordinary business story of technological obsolescence, certainly nothing to be outraged about. Companies drop old product lines all the time, and sometimes that means customers are stuck with compatibility headaches. In ordinary circumstances, you would expect entrepreneurs or volunteers to pick up Microsoft's slack and offer software to convert those old recordings to another format.

But the Digital Millennium Copyright Act transforms what would normally be a promising business opportunity into a federal felony. Not only will PlaysForSure music not play on a Zune, but the DMCA makes it illegal, punishable by up to five years in jail on the first offence, for third parties to offer utilities to bridge that gap. The PlaysForSure format includes copy protection technology that was supposed to deter piracy. Under the DMCA, no one may "circumvent" a copy protection scheme without the permission of the platform's owner. Moreover, it is illegal to "traffic" in software that performs this function.

That means that customers with PlaysForSure-formatted music have only three options. They can content themselves with the dwindling number of PlaysForSure-compatible music players still left on the market, such as the Sony Walkman or Creative Zen. They can burn all their music to CDs, then re-rip them to an open format—not just a time-consuming process but one that will reduce the quality of the recordings. Or they can break the law and download illegal software to convert their music to an open, widely supported format such as MP3, allowing their music to be played on any music player, including iPods and Zunes.

As if all that weren't enough, this fall Microsoft will switch off the license servers that allow customers to "authorize" new computers and operating systems to play music bought from the MSN Store. Customers who replace their computers will find themselves with no legal way to play their music.

It's a rich irony that users who choose to break the law and download music from peer-to-peer file sharing sites don't face these inconveniences. The DMCA ostensibly was aimed at stopping illicit file sharing, which continues unabated. There is no evidence that the law has kept music off peer-to-peer networks. There is no evidence that PlaysForSure has kept music off peer-to-peer networks either. And music on peer-to-peer sites is typically available in an open format such as MP3, which can be played on almost any device. Thus the DMCA's only substantial impact on the music marketplace has been to inconvenience those who made the mistake of purchasing music from a legal online service.

There is growing recognition of the absurdity of this state of affairs. Copy protection has become so unpopular that after years of insisting that all music downloads come in copy-protected formats, last year the major labels began allowing some online retailers, including Apple, Amazon, and Wal-Mart, to sell music downloads in the open MP3 format. But as the PlaysForSure debacle demonstrates, there is still a great need to reform copyright law. The DMCA needlessly restricts consumers' freedom to listen to their legally purchased music on the devices of their choice. In the name of fighting illegal downloads, it has created a big incentive to download music illegally.

Timothy B. Lee is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute.

Update: Between the time this story went to press and this posting, Microsoft has announced plans to support PlaysForSure customers through 2011. For more information, go here.

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  1. As if all that weren’t enough, this fall Microsoft will switch off the license servers that allow customers to “authorize” new computers and operating systems to play music bought from the MSN Store. Customers who replace their computers will find themselves with no legal way to play their music.

    If Microsoft marketed these music files by using the claim that they had license servers available if you wanted to port your music over when you bought a new computer, isn’t this a class action suit waiting to happen?

    Isn’t this like turning off the registration servers for Windows XP, to try to force people to buy Windows Vista?

  2. “Isn’t this like turning off the registration servers for Windows XP, to try to force people to buy Windows Vista?”

    Only if they had an alternative to sell them, which Microsoft doesn’t.

    Silly, silly Microsoft…

  3. Bill Gates is such a little dick. He’s like a little brat kid that loves to annoy people and doesn’t care that everyone hates him.

  4. A rich little dick. Who doesn’t run the company any more.

  5. The richest! Not hyperbole!

  6. “Plays For Sure” – ha ha ha. Glad I never fell for that joke. I fell for Apple’s DRM instead for awhile, but now I just buy from Amazon or emusic or iTunes+.

    A rich little dick. Who doesn’t run the company any more.

    Hasn’t Ballmer been more or less running the company for years now? I think the Longhorn fiasco and now this can be blamed on him more than Gates.

  7. Unlicensed MP3’s in as high a quality/bitrate as you can get.

    End of discussion.

    Everyone likes to bag on Microsoft– and there’s much to bag on them about– but I know many a person who drunk the iTunes coolaid and discovered that their licensing scheme wasn’t anything to cheer about. Ever met an iTunes user whose computer crashed without backup? Oh how the long winter evenings fly by…

  8. Ever met an iTunes user whose computer crashed without backup?

    That says more about the user’s lack of a backup than about DRM. Besides, I think they can download the tracks again – not a huge burden.

  9. That says more about the user’s lack of a backup than about DRM. Besides, I think they can download the tracks again – not a huge burden.

    Yes and no. Depending on the crash, their tracks may be recoverable, but not the licensing. And the last time I was involved in licensed music (which is why I abandoned pay-for-download concept all together) if you lost your licenses, you couldn’t re-download. Has iTunes changed this? If they have, mad props to them. Last time I was involved in a crash, the user got a polite “sorry, you’ll have to repurchase those tracks”

  10. Did some google searching, Rhywun, and it seems that it’s a “first taste is free” policy for iTunes. You can lose your tunes once and re-download them.

    Unacceptable. I want 100% re-download, any time, anywhere- with 100% unlimited transfer.

    No likey? I’ll stick with CD’s ripped to MP3, and an encrypted FTP darknet.

  11. Has iTunes changed this?

    They’ve been DRM-free for some time now.

  12. They’ve been DRM-free for some time now.

    My understanding is that’s EMI music only?

    And for the low-low price of .30 cents a song, you can unlicense your existing tunes.

  13. Oooh, feelin’ ,a href=”http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20070530-apple-hides-account-info-in-drm-free-music-too.html”>lucky, punk?

    Such is the situation with Apple’s new DRM-free music: songs sold without DRM still have a user’s full name and account e-mail embedded in them, which means that dropping that new DRM-free song on your favorite P2P network could come back to bite you.

  14. Microsoft is not a monolithic company. Certain of their products rock hard, and others blow.

    Visual Studio.NET is a fucking awesome IDE and I am amazed at how much faster I get shit done in it, and how few bugs I have. Going back to 6.0 would be like going back to the Stone Age.

    But stuff like Vista really pisses people off, and with good reason. When judging Microsoft, do it by team, not by the whole company.

  15. Visual Studio.NET is a fucking awesome IDE and I am amazed at how much faster I get shit done in it, and how few bugs I have.

    Word. And frankly, I actually liked 6.0. But I left development when .NET came along, so I poked around with it, but never really “learned” it. I remember the old Borland development tools and I hated ’em. Microsoft also gave really great support for their IDE’s. I personally know one of the guys in compiler support and he gave me a rundown on Microsoft’s philosophy on their development tools. Too bad the rest of MS doesn’t run that way.

  16. I have news for you: MP3 is NOT open. It is encumbered by a patent, and the patent owner has been vigorously pursuing people who use it without buying a license.

    For a format that is actually open, look to FLAC or Ogg Vorbis.

  17. Ken Barber. Thanks for the info. FYI, so is JPG format but it doesn’t seem to really slow its proliferation down.

    I’m interested in reading up on this, got a link?

  18. I personally know one of the guys in compiler support and he gave me a rundown on Microsoft’s philosophy on their development tools.

    I would guess that it boils down to “make our IDE so great that everyone will want to program in our languages for our OS”. And that’s pretty smart.

    Visual Studio 6 was OK, but .NET is an order of magnitude greater.

  19. I would guess that it boils down to “make our IDE so great that everyone will want to program in our languages for our OS”. And that’s pretty smart.

    Actually it didn’t. In the early days of Visual Studio, when they were competing with Borland’s tools which many persnickety developers found “superior”, microsoft pushed their support paradigm. Support everything and really work with the developers and do serious hand-holding. Microsoft knew (at the time) that compared to Borland they had an ‘inferior’ product, but they provided unbeatable support. Borland’s tools, while considered technically superior, provided lousy support.

    Microsoft believed that developers would suffer through whatever issues (not truly ANSI compliancy, buggy etc.) if they provided Johnny-on-the-spot support. It paid off. Developers started to abandon Borland who had one surly support tech who looked like Kevin Smith and wore a “No, I won’t fix your computer” tee-shirt, and went to Microsoft in droves.

  20. Ken Barber, open or no, this may be why MP3 is a trustworthy format for the time being:

    Additionally, patent holders declined to enforce license fees on free and open source decoders, which allows many free MP3 decoders to develop.[26] Furthermore, while attempts have been made to discourage distribution of encoder binaries, Thomson has stated that individuals who use free MP3 encoders are not required to pay fees. Thus, while patent fees have been an issue for companies that attempt to use MP3, they have not meaningfully impacted users, which allows the format to grow in popularity.

  21. Microsoft believed that developers would suffer through whatever issues (not truly ANSI compliancy, buggy etc.) if they provided Johnny-on-the-spot support.

    Interesting. Actually, looking back, this makes perfect sense if you go back before or to the infancy of the internet. Back then, you couldn’t search Google and hit 20 forums with people discussing the exact problem you’re having, so if you just couldn’t figure out why something wasn’t working, you had to call.

    I would guess, though, that they are also including the “if the IDE rocks hard and makes development easier and faster, they will use it” theory now.

  22. Ken Barber | July 17, 2008, 3:42pm | #

    For a format that is actually open, look to FLAC

    Open AND lossless. Both good things.

  23. They ARE transferable to another computer. Open your DAW software, open media player. Hit record on DAW, play on media player. After recording, save as format of your choice. Yes there is an analog step there unless your setup is all digital. But to say it is IMPOSSIBLE to transfer is fatuous at best.

  24. No longer runs the company, MY ASS.

    The board and executive branch at Microsoft is so far up Bill Gates ass they can see the long digested remains of Netscape (which Billy-boy refuses to expel in the interest of bragging rights) and Yahoo coming down the pipeline.

  25. iTunes DRM can be circumvented easily enough. Just burn the tracks to an audio CD. It’s a standard CD then which you can re-rip in any format you like. Slight generation loss due to the transcoding, but unnoticeable to most ears. It serves two purposes: no DRM (yay) and a built in back up for your music. Apple even tell you how to do this. Most other DRM schemes won’t let you do it.

    BTW, I don’t have a huge amount of sympathy for folks who don’t back their shit up. Heck, even syncing your iTunes library to a big enough iPod is something.

  26. They ARE transferable to another computer. Open your DAW software, open media player. Hit record on DAW, play on media player. After recording, save as format of your choice.[…] But to say it is IMPOSSIBLE to transfer is fatuous at best.

    Not to the average user. And, although I haven’t personally had my hands on Vista (I’m proud to say) to try it, my understanding was that this was nigh impossible given all the tilt-bit nonsense. That’s why I never upgraded from XP to Vista: I use this method all the time. Anyway, I never said it was impossible, it’s just that this DRM nonsense has made it difficult enough to stymie the average user. Can you really blame a non-computer savvy user for feeling stumped when the PlayForSure system evaporates?

    I heard a great quote today about technology not directly related to this discussion: Technology giveth, and technology taketh away. Yes, with the digital music revolution, we’ve been given a fantastic amount of flexibility and miniaturization of our music collections. But we’re also increasingly being boxed in my DRM schemes which lock us to devices, limit our transfers to multiple devices or, yes– legal or not– sharing music.

    BTW, I don’t have a huge amount of sympathy for folks who don’t back their shit up. Heck, even syncing your iTunes library to a big enough iPod is something.

    Adam, neither do I. But welcome to 99.999999999999999997% of personal computer users. Having no sympathy for them doesn’t change the fact that a lot of music and that concept is brand new for the digital age.

  27. People on this thread have been so busy getting their rocks off on hating Microsoft, they seem to have ignored the real problem, the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. This is the sort of legislation you get when the dumb-as-dirt legislators leave the actual writing of the legislation to their Machiavellian little staff toadies.

  28. Once again DMCA and the copy protection jackoffs fail to hurt or discourage anyone but paying customers. Does this surprise anyone? Neh? Didn’t think so. Information is like a living thing, with only one imperative: to reproduce itself. You can’t put it in a bottle and sell it anymore; you might as well try bottling air.
    It’s time for people in the publishing industry to start working for a living again, and it’s time they woke up and stopped throwing their money away at companies who promise iron-clad means to protect their content. It’s pitiable self-delusion, and when to nobody else’s surprise it doesn’t work, they go whine “unfair” to whomever will listen.
    They need to get back to being a service oriented industry: provide distribution services and promotion for artists, and let artists generate income primarily by performing in public (which the vast majority of musicians and performance artists already do). Nobody else in any industry expects to continue generating profit from a piece of work they paid someone else to do up to 75 years ago; why the media industry thinks it’s special I’ll never understand. They can get on board quick, or they can fail entirely.

  29. If you can’t find legal, non-DRM tracks on the intertubes you’re not looking hard enough.

  30. Some of you seem unaware that you can copy the files on your IPOD back to your PC (if you know how) Apple won’t tell you but the dirty little secret is the files on the POD are “hidden” so you have to tell your PC to copy hidden files.

    I have done it after my PC crashed and I had to reload my operating system. It’s something of a pain, but it beats losing 300-400 songs

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