Set the music free

Set the music free[Duncan McLeod Financial Mail] Nokia last week launched its digital music store in SA. It’s the first serious attempt to capture the local market for music downloads. But, through no fault of Nokia’s, the service is infected with anti piracy technology that could undermine the store’s success.

Last January, I penned a column under the headline “DRM is dead”. The piece referred to a landmark deal that Amazon.com had reached with Sony BMG, allowing the online retailer to sell digital music without embedded digital rights management technology. DRM schemes typically prevent the repeated copying of digital content.

But DRM is also detested by many consumers, who see it as infringing their right to do what they like with material they’ve legitimately purchased. The inability to copy music easily between devices is seen as an inconvenience at best and a reason not to buy such material at worst.

Sony BMG was the last of the big four record labels to capitulate to consumer demands and allow Amazon.com to sell digital music that is free of DRM.

I argued in my column at the time that it appeared that the music industry was finally throwing in the towel — that it had finally realised that DRM did not work and had failed to curb digital music piracy.

Though digital music on Amazon.com remains untainted by DRM, I was dead wrong about a wholesale change of attitude by the record labels. Having already shot themselves in the foot, it seems they are hell-bent on inflicting more damage on themselves.

DRM, unfortunately, is far from dead.

Last week, SA became the 16th country to get a Nokia Music Store. It’s a brave move by the handset manufacturer. Apple, which operates the iTunes Store, the world’s most popular source of legitimate — and now also DRM-free — digital music downloads, has shown no interest in providing music through the SA version of the store. Many local users have figured out they can buy iTunes credit using vouchers for sale on eBay and fibbing about their address. But it’s a real hassle.

So, Nokia’s store should be warmly welcomed to our shores. But the company should know that the DRM in its songs could put off a lot of prospective customers.

Don’t get me wrong: I have a lot of sympathy for the music industry. The record labels are worried that people will download music and then simply “squirt” that content via wireless technologies like Bluetooth to their friends. Imagine how quickly one downloaded song could spread through a school!

But distrusting law-abiding consumers by crippling the content they own legitimately is also not on. As a colleague pointed out to me recently, if you want DRM-free content, you simply have to walk into a music retailer. Most compact discs are free of any anti-piracy technology. Why the double standards?

Because Nokia has been forced to apply DRM to the songs its sells — it uses a system developed by Microsoft — it is also not able to offer the service to anyone other than people running Internet Explorer on Windows XP or Windows Vista. Those who use the Mac OS X and Linux operating systems, who are generally more tech-savvy and probably more likely to buy products online, are excluded.

It must be emphasised, however, that Nokia cannot be blamed for the DRM in its store. The system has been forced on it.

The record labels should take heed of recent research that shows that people who pirate music online are also more likely to purchase digital content — those who download music for free are 10 times more likely to buy music on the Internet than those who don’t, according to Norwegian researchers.

But those same tech-savvy users don’t want DRM. The music industry, by insisting on it, is effectively driving people to piracy.

It’s time to throw in the towel on DRM once and for all.

  • First published as the column Technology & You in the Financial Mail of May 1 2009

2 Responses to “Set the music free”  

  1. 1 Dwayne Bailey

    They were forced? Sounds more like they were simply compliant.

    You say that they have a legitimate fear, do they really? From my reading of it the major record labels seem to have spent more time fighting their customers then trying to understanding how it could work in their favour. Although all the good stories I hear which involve people using music sharing to grow their market and revenue are almost all driven by the failing of large music distributors. So perhaps they do have something to worry about. I’d worry that people might realise that what they peddle is not what people want.

  2. 2 JB

    Copy the music to an Audio CD and then you can rip and move as much as you like!

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