Is it My Music? Or Not?

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Though I haven’t posted on it in a little while, there are few things that get me more worked up than digital rights management. I wrote this piece that got picked up by el Reg a few years back, but since then I’ve been relatively quiet on the subject simply because I’ve more or less said what I had to say, and because Cory said everything that I think needs to be said. The evidence that the RIAA (the very same wholesome, honest folks that colluded me and my fellow consumers out of $480M) is protecting themselves from a threat that doesn’t exist continues to grow, as DeWitt notes here.

But last night DRM kicked me in the face yet again. While I was at a friend’s house for some routine PC maintenance, I was asked to explain how to import purchased CD’s into iTunes so they could be copied onto an iPod Shuffle. First up was a homemade-looking CD from a band called “The Frays,” and the CD included the curious (from an RIAA perspective) label on it – “PLEASE BURN FOR YOUR FRIENDS.” Weird, hunh? Why on earth would a band want more people to listen to their music? No problem with that one. The second CD to import was the latest Foo Fighters double disc. Unfortunately, the CD was – you guessed it – DRM’d, asking me to install some sort of copy protection scheme, “for my benefit,” of course. Remembering an old workaround, I ejected and reinserted the disc holding down shift key and sure enough the copy protection didn’t load. Unfortunately, the resulting import into iTunes included a not-so-tuneful assortment of skips, pops and chirps indicating that the technical wizards at the RIAA had adapted to this latest strategy (after they’d gotten around the “Sharpie” vulnerability). It was the same deal with the new Killers disc.

So my question is this: if I purchase a CD, is the RIAA’s stance now that I can’t listen to it in the media player of my choice on a PC – not to mention a portable music player? And if so, do they think the average consumer realizes that? Because I don’t – and it sure came as an unpleasant surprise to my friend. While there is an FBI warning label on the disc discussing the “UNAUTHORIZED DUPLICATION” of the disc, do they believe an average consumer knows importing a disc into iTunes constitutes unauthorized duplication? And what of the bands? Do they think this doesn’t reflect on them?

The real question here is a simple one: if I buy a CD, is it my music? Or not? Because if it’s not, and I can’t do certain things with a CD I’m buying, I think that’s something the RIAA should be required to label clearly on every CD they sell.


  1. DRM – a sensitive subject and one that a colleague (wannabe song writer – he's actually very good) and I regularly spar over. I like the idea of labeling CDs as you suggested but I doubt it will ever happen. Today on Boing Boing, Xeni Jardin did a post about James Randi's book going online. His research shows that making it avaiable online actually helps sales of the hardcopy version.

  2. "is it my music? Or not?"
    The physical disc is yours, the content on it is being licensed to you.

    "the RIAA should be required to label clearly on every CD"
    They do. Right on the back it says Unauthorized duplication or public performance prohibited. You may not like the arrangement, but you do know about it before you buy.

    I have no problem with DRM. It is something that the free market should take care of. If companies release CDs with extremely restrictive DRM then people should stop buying them. If a CD is released that only lets you listen to it on one player, another company will release discs that allow 2 players, and so on. The real solution is not piracy and illegal downloading, it's having consumers speak with their wallets. The labels have every right to release the disc in any way they want. And you have every right to not buy music that contains features you don't like.

    It might be bad business to release products people say they don't want, but until people stop saying they don't want it and actually stop buying it, why should the labels change? To them, you're just complaining and then buying it anyway.

    You might have to go without the latest CD from your favorite artist but that may be what the industry needs to have happen before they change.

  3. The free market is all well and good but of course the recorded music industry is not a free market–just look at the organization managing the standards and fighting the battle, it sure isn't the individual record companies. In terms of sales there are only four companies that matter and truly this is an industry where the feds are failing the public again by ignoring antitrust issues.

  4. I don't know, I tend to agree with your posted opinions but since there is much commenting allowed on my blogs hard to know about the opposite, or whether you've even noticed them (not suggesting you should have since I don't write about the same topics). Interesting enough here to keep in my aggregator.

  5. I have found IsoBuster (http://www.isobuster.com) to be helpful to get music from CDs that have copy protection on them. I grab the .wav files directly from the CD and then use CDex (http://cdexos.sourceforge.net/) to convert to mp3. iTunes can probably import/convert the .wav files as well.

  6. Gary: totally agreed; i think the record industry realizes that if they slap a label on it that says “FYI: YOU CAN’T BURN THIS ON AN IPOD” they’d sell a few less CDs. great BB link.

    Joel: many thx for the tip – i was hoping somebody would come up with a solution. will try it when i get back from OSCON.

    Peter: we’re definitely not going to see eye to eye.

    “They do. Right on the back it says Unauthorized duplication or public performance prohibited. You may not like the arrangement, but you do know about it before you buy.”

    don’t agree at all. the definition of “unauthorized duplication” is unclear, given that historically fair use has permitted personal copies – particularly those that are for another device. as i argued above, i highly doubt the majority of consumers see the message and understand that they can’t put their music on an iPod, and i think the RIAA realizes that explaining that would hurt sales. that’s ridiculous.

    “If companies release CDs with extremely restrictive DRM then people should stop buying them.”

    seriously – that’s the argument you’re going to use with the fan of a band, who’s willing to pay for the CD but just wants to be able to listen to it on an iPod?

    “The real solution is not piracy and illegal downloading, it’s having consumers speak with their wallets.”

    sure. it’s consumers fault that they need to hear the latest CD from the band, and any exploitation of that need by the RIAA is completely justified because they keep spending.

    on a free market note, i suggest you visit the link discussing the FCC’s findings.

    BillSaysThis: right on. we don’t always agree, but we’re violently aligned on this one.

  7. "seriously – that's the argument you're going to use with the fan of a band, who's willing to pay for the CD but just wants to be able to listen to it on an iPod?"
    Yes it is. Come on, we're just talking about music here, no one NEEDS to listen to music on an iPod. It's not like anyone is going to die from not hearing a song.

    The music and film industry have instituted DRM to combat what they see as an _economic_ problem. Whether you believe that is the true nature of the problem or not, the best way to fight it is using the same economic principles. If people stopped buying products with restrictive DRM the industry would listen. When the next big artist sells 5000 CDs instead of 500,000 they will notice. Something like that will also cause big retailers like Best Buy & Wal-mart to put pressure on the industry. They don't want to lose sales and customer traffic and they have a lot of pull in the marketplace.

    If you say you don't like CDs with DRM, but then buy them anyway, why should the industry change? They already have your money.

    There is going to be short-term pain on both sides, but the economics of the free market system WILL make it work in the long run.

  8. BillSaysThis: sorry – didn’t mean to question the value of your contributions at all – you’ve been a good contributor here for a while. i meant instead that we haven’t always seen eye to eye, particularly on the topic of Sun – but haven’t managed to disagree respectfully, i think. i’ve found your pushback very helpful. the only reason i called it out is that given some of the divergence of our opinions in the past, i found our alignment here very rewarding.


    “It’s not like anyone is going to die from not hearing a song.”

    true, but you’d have to admit that music has more a pull and more of an emotional investment from a consumer perspective than, say, trash bags.

    “The music and film industry have instituted DRM to combat what they see as an _economic_ problem.”

    an economic problem with the status quo, you mean. basically the music industry recognizes that with distribution and discovery having been revolutionized by the rise of the internet, and fear their jobs are at risk. they are right. their actions are an attempt to preserve a model that is increasingly obsolete. should i cry for them, these folks that stole from me? no, just as no one’s crying for buggy whip manufacturers.

    as for putting my faith in my fellow consumers, i think that’s a lost cause given the lobbying efforts of the industry that have little or nothing to do with consumer needs.

    plus, if we do as you say and stop buying discs, what do you think the record industry would say? my bet is that they would turn around the very next day and cry that it was all due to piracy, and nothing to do with their business practices.

    this simply is not a simple, free market issue as you might wish.

  9. Stuart: Understood

    Peter: Can you explain how this oligopoly, when the mass of consumers will never think deeply enough to boycott, can you give a more practical approach to resolve this?

  10. Peter, I see what you mean though I would point to all the P2P activity as, in part, a rebellion against business choices by the music industry.

  11. Bill: If most people won’t think deeply enough about it to change their behavior then nothing will ever change. If people aren’t thinking about it that much than maybe it isn’t a real concern for most people.

    It’s no different than any other aspect of the product. Suppose the industry raised the price of CDs to $500 a disc. You can be very sure people would be angry AND they would stop buying discs. That would hurt everyone involved and the price would come down.

    Say what you want about the FTC’s report on prices, but millions and millions of discs were sold during that time. Apparently most people didn’t think they were too expensive. Sure, it is really a monopoly system and you can’t buy a cheaper version of your favorite band’s new CD from a different label, but if you truly feel it’s too expensive then don’t buy it. No one is forced to buy music. You might really want that new disc but you WILL survive without it. Sometimes people need to make sacrifices to institute a change.

    I have asked before and not gotten an answer, “If you complain that disc prices are too high and you don’t like the DRM, but you go ahead and keep buying CDs anyway, why should the industry change?” They have absolutely no incentive whatsoever to change as long as you keep buying.

    I’m not saying anything they are doing is right, or in the consumers’ best interest. But I would certainly defend their right to try to make as much money as they can from their product, just as every other business does. If or when they go too far and raise prices too high or make the DRM too restrictive, it is the consumers right, and obligation, to say “no more” by not purchasing the product.

    I can’t give you a more practical resolution because I believe this is an economic fight and it needs to be fought with economic weapons, not technological ones. If people actively stopped buying discs with restrictive DRM and actively did support discs without it, the industry would change. What other option would they have if they wanted to continue to make money?

  12. BillSaysThis: it’s Steve, actually – you must have me confused with the Australian (i think) cyclist 🙂

    Peter: “If you complain that disc prices are too high and you don’t like the DRM, but you go ahead and keep buying CDs anyway, why should the industry change?”

    well, people tried that in Napster and the music industry is still freaked out by it, years later. i can see no circumstance under which the general population will – en masse – cease buying music. it’s simply not going happen.

    but you haven’t addressed my earlier point, which was if that did happen – i doubt it would lead to any change, other than even more restrictive policies on music b/c it seems to be the nature of the RIAA to more readily believe in inappropriate behavior on its users part than its own. as such, they’d conclude that it wasn’t a consumer population fed up with its pricing, but rampant piracy.

    your “solution,” then, is to me no solution at all, but merely a prelude to more draconian measures.

  13. Stephen: If the the music industry decides that the reduction in sales is due to piracy and institutes even more restrictive DRM, then consumers should respond with a continued/further reduction in purchases.
    If consumers stand their ground (and let the industry know what the problem is) they will have no choice but to change if they want to continue to sell product. The other side of equation is that consumers MUST support product that does not contain restrictive DRM. That will clearly show the industry that DRM is the problem.

    Napster isn’t a good example because it showed the industry that people very much wanted their products, they just didn’t want to pay for them. By not purchasing, pirating or sharing music with DRM (basically ignoring DRM product), you are telling the industry you DO NOT want that product at any price.

    That is a much stronger message than Napster ever sent, which in the industry’s mind was “our customers are cheap thieves.”

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