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June 27, 2007

WHATEVER IS DOWN (Was: Rental Zen, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Entirely Ignore DRM)

NOTICE, 11am, 6/28/07: Whatever seems to be having some sort of extreme database issue at the moment. The short story: As of just short of midnight last night, Whatever's database apparently stopped accepting new data, including new entries and new comments (I'm able to post this, apparently, because it's into an article already posted. Don't ask me how it works -- it just works). Anyway, I'm looking into it now. Don't know how long it will take to fix. In the meantime feel free to visit my LiveJournal, where I will update with news and information. You can also post comments there.


Behold my latest toy, a 60 GB Creative Vision:M, which is just like a video iPod, except that if you try to connect it to iTunes, it will wail and thrash and scream "it burns us, preciousssssss!" or something like that. Which, you know, is fine, because I bought it to interface not with iTunes at all, but with another music service entirely: Rhapsody, which I've subscribed to for years, and which, if you pay $15 a month as I do, will allow you to fill certain music players (like the one I just bought) jam-packed full of rented music, music which is, incidentally, positively swaddled in digital rights management. The idea here is that if I should cancel my Rhapsody account, the music on my player will lock up; I won't be able to access it. Because it's rental music, you see.

My response to this, basically: Yeah, okay, whatever. Indeed, so utterly unconcerned am I with this that one of the reasons I bought the Creative music player in the first place is that it's my intent to fill it up solely with rented music, in all its DRMed-to-the-gums glory. Why? Because in the end, it just doesn't matter to me. And here's why:

1. To begin, I own tons of music -- literally thousands of albums dating back to high school -- but it's across a myriad of media, and not all of it is easily accessible: About 80% of my CD collection is packed away in boxes in the basement, for example, and only part of it I've ever bothered to rip to electronic format. Then there are the cassettes and (god forbid) LPs I own, and the albums and tracks I've downloaded off of iTunes. Honestly, it's all a big friggin' mess, and the idea of trying to get it all organized so I can stuff it into my music player fills me with a horrible sort of crushing ennui. Really, just stab me in the eye, because it would be less painful.

With the rental music, I don't have to bother with all that. Right now, as I type this, I'm downloading the entire discography of Depeche Mode into my player off of Rhapsody. It took me about 90 seconds to queue up the entire playlist and drag and drop it into player; all 160 songs (or so -- I'm not loading in remixes, etc at this point) will be funneled into it in another ten minutes or so. Simple, easy, done. I own all this music, but it's easier to use the rental version. So I'm likely to replicate the part of my music collection I actually listen to into my player.

There's the added attraction that I can also drag and drop music that I haven't bought into the player and take it along with me to listen to, to see if I want to buy it. I often do (my rule of thumb is if I listen to an album's worth of rented music three times through, I buy it), so that's not bad either. And even if I don't buy it, thanks to Rhapsody's setup with music companies, the artists and/or copyright holders still get paid a portion of the rental fee. It's tiny, but it's better than nothing.

2. The DRM setup doesn't allow me to trade music files with people, but you know what? I don't do that anyway -- it's not a behavior I typically indulge in. When someone tells me about a band they like, what I usually end up doing is pulling that band up on Rhapsody and listening to it there, because I feel that's an ethical way of satisfying my curiosity (a little bit of my monthly fee goes to the musicians, remember), and when I want to share music, I have a tendency to point to streaming audio/video that's either been authorized (on YouTube, which has licensing agreements at this point with most of the big labels, or through something like AOL Music) or -- if it's questionable that it's been authorized -- is at least on an obvious site that takes down data on request (again with the YouTube). The DRM keeps me from engaging in behavior I don't engage in, which means for me, it doesn't present a real issue.

To be clear, the reason I don't typically engage in file trading is not because DRM makes it difficult -- I'm technologically competent enough that it would be trivial for me to get around nearly any DRM set-up yet devised -- but I choose not to, and because generally speaking at this point in time there are better ways to achieve the goal of sharing music, some of which actually allow copyright holders to get paid something.

3. Yes, but what about the fact that thanks to the DRM, I can only access the music on certain computers and on certain music players? Surely that's an imposition! Well, the thing is, it's not. Rhapsody's setup allows me to run its music software on five computers and on a certain number of portable players. Well, as it happens, I have four computers in the house and three portable music players -- which is to say, I'm covered. And even then, should I want to get around this, Rhapsody has made it easy to do by allowing its users to access its system via a Web browser, so actually there's no limit to the number of computers I can use to access whatever music I want. What if I want to put the music onto my stereo? I bring my laptop to the stereo and run a line from the laptop to the stereo. Done and done. But I can't actually remember the last time I used my stereo; at this point the entire family listens to music via computers and the TV (on which our satellite system has a several dozen music channels).

So while theoretically DRM restricts my access to music, as a practical matter the restrictions it places on my use of the music are so non-onerous as to be just like not there at all. For how I use my music, and how my family uses music, the restrictions are not an issue in the least.

4. There is the fact that Rhapsody could at any point change the rules of rental access or that I could leave the service and have all that music on my player become dead files. But I have to say that this doesn't particularly concern me because I understand that I am renting music here. Which is to say that I am under no illusion that I own the specific data files I am downloading into my player. I own some of the music because I've purchased it in other media, and at any point in time if I want I can rip that music into electronic files, and I would own those too. But these files -- the ones I'm borrowing from Rhapsody -- I don't own any more than I own a DVD from Blockbuster or Netflix, or a book from the local public library.

If Rhapsody suddenly changes its terms to something I don't like and I leave the service, or it goes out of business, or whatever, I understand that I'm going to lose access to these files. Big deal. I can switch to another provider, which would mean restuffing the player, which would be annoying but not horribly onerous, or I can just drop in the actual music I own. In the meantime, it's not a problem. Indeed, in one respect the rented files have an advantage to electronic music files I own: If the hard drive I've stored most of my mp3s on implodes (as it will inevitably do), there goes my collection (presuming I don't have a CD version or haven't otherwise backed up). This is not an issue with the rented music. If my computer implodes, it doesn't take Rhapsody with it.

Add it all up and all this rented music thing makes a lot of sense to me, and for me.

Now, to make one thing clear, when I'm talking about being fine about DRM, I'm talking about it in the context of rented music. If we're talking about music I want to buy to own, then I'm of another mind entirely when it comes to DRM. Because I'm buying that. It's mine. Again, the issue of DRM keeping me from accessing my music would be trivial in a practical sense, both in how I use my music, and how I could get around the DRM if I want to. But that's not the point. The point is once I buy something, the seller is loses the ability to tell me how I can or cannot use it, and all the EULAs in the world aren't going to change that much. But when I rent music, it's not the same thing. Swaddle it up with DRM; I'm fine with that.

Posted by john at June 27, 2007 05:05 PM

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Kate | June 27, 2007 05:29 PM

I've just recently moved my hundreds of cd's to digital format over the past few months. When I read your paragraph on how most of your cds are stuffed in boxes, I wish I had done the same with mine. I now have an overly large collection of songs that are mediocre as opposed to a manageable play list of songs that I really enjoy.

So while I can geekishly brag that I could be stuck in a hole for 30 days with a consistently charged IPOD and survive on music alone, God help me when I'm trying to find a particular song I want on the go.

So I can totally understand your laziness in not ripping your physical collection to your computer/mp3 player.

Although I can't bring myself to rent music. There is something about those two words together that just give me the heebee jeebees.

I'll pay for songs I like, and when Amazon opens its DRM free song store, I'll be on that like butter on toast, but I've always been a return on investment kinda girl, not just throwing money out the window on a rental.

To each his own I guess. :)

ordinarygirl | June 27, 2007 05:31 PM

That's pretty much how I feel about DRM and music as well. I own an iPod because I got a good deal on a mini back when they were phasing them out. I'd still love to have video capability, but it won't be iPod (most likely) and it won't be soon (most likely).

Anyway, when I purchase a song from iTunes, it's mine. I don't go around sharing it with people, but I sure as hell don't feel remorse about removing the DRM protection.

Another way you could think about Rhapsody is as pay radio (similar to XM or Sirius) except that you get much more control over what music you listen to.

Skip | June 27, 2007 05:33 PM

That's basically how I feel about DRM. Put all the DRM you want on something, and as long as it never prevents or makes difficult me doing something that I should have the right to do, I simply don't care.

I actually have a ton of DRM'd audio that I've bought. It's all audiobooks I've gotten from Audible.com. Now Audible, if you use their download manager and hosting software does have some of the restrictions you mentioned, certain number of portable devices, PCs, etc.

But I use it with itunes and an ipod. And I'm actually on my 4th ipod, having had 2 replaced under warranty and bought one replacement of a dead one. In each case, I just plugged the thing in and it chugged for a bit, and I had all my books back.

Before I bought the ipod, though, I was using it with a little creative muvo. At that point, I forced myself to burn CDs and rip them to MP3 any time I got a new book to make sure that I wouldn't lose access to it. With itunes I'm not worried. Apple's not going anywhere, or if it does, we'll have a ton of warning.

KevinQ | June 27, 2007 06:05 PM

The best DRM is the kind that you don't even notice is there. And here, that seems like what Rhapsody has done. The DRM meshes with what you want to do, so it becomes a non-issue. In fact, I suspect that the vast majority of Rhapsody's customers are in a similar boat - they go with Rhapsody because it lets them do what they want to do with their music.

Which is fine, except it means that part of that $15 you spend each month is not going to the artists, it's going to pay for DRM which is completely ineffective. DRM is supposed to stop people from doing certain things with the music, but it's not doing that here, because people don't want to do what the DRM is purportedly stopping them from doing. If Rhapsody cancelled their DRM contract, absolutely nothing would change for their users.

The most cogent argument against DRM is not that DRM restricts personal freedom, but that DRM costs money, and then fails to do its job. This, I suspect, is what companies are starting to realize, and why smaller companies, and even larger companies like EMI, are ceasing use of DRM software.


kero aka kevin | June 27, 2007 06:06 PM

Meh. You spend $15 a month to rent music and complain about the data plan on an iPhone.

I prefer "owning" my music and am not hampered by Apples DRM and get to use a better music system than the Zen and whatever.

Christian | June 27, 2007 06:12 PM

That Creative Vision:M looks pretty sweet. Will those touch sensitive buttons still work with nectarine goo all over them?

/Innocent look

Bookninja | June 27, 2007 06:22 PM

I generally like that kooky alternative music, so I subscribe to emusic. It's an unambiguously legal subscription service that allows a set number of downloads per month for a fee. The music is mp3 format, higher bit rate than iTunes music store and no DRM. It is yours legally at a rate of about 3 songs for a dollar. The only hitch is you have to be excited over the new Dinosaur Jr., Deerhoof, Camera Obscura, Belle & Sebastian, Of Montreal, Beulah, or Arcade Fire album. Outside of rock, they have pretty good blues, jazz, electronic, classical and children's tunes also (although we discovered my three year old is fond of Bad Religion). I get just about all my music through emusic and have been very satisfied. Although being forced to figure out 40 new songs a month can be a little tiresome sometimes. They offer also offer free trials.

yoshi | June 27, 2007 06:54 PM

Isn't this what is missing from the so called DRM debate? How people actually use the music? and that different services can be catered to different tastes? I think a rental business plan works for most people. It doesn't work for me. All music players support AAC or MP3 and having the physical file is important to me. But its not for everyone.

I am on my sixth iPod which I originally chose because it simple and it works. Once a year I review alternatives and usually come away completely unimpressed.

kristin b | June 27, 2007 07:08 PM

That's pretty much what I do, except with an iRiver and Yahoo Jukebox. I'm pretty sure, though, that we got it for about $5/mo with a 2 year subsription (I think they've raised it since then). It's a little more restrictive as to how many computers and devices you can use--I think it's 3 and 2--but that's not a problem for us.

We've had a few problems now and then, both with the device and the service, but once we worked out the kinks everything was great. I don't mind "renting" music any more than I mind renting DVDs or borrowing books from the library. As for the DRM--meh. As long as they're letting me have nearly-unlimited access to more music than I can find at any store, for $5/month, I'm happy.

Sam | June 27, 2007 07:38 PM

How do you go from transfering old vinyl into digital format to download into an mp3. Do i have to spend a fortune to get an adaptor of some sorts.

Jeff Hentosz | June 27, 2007 07:51 PM

Sam: Google "USB turntable." I've seen them for sale at music stores, used record stores, even Hot Topic. Also, there are plenty of sites (e.g., Macworld) that have run articles about analog-to-digital conversion in the past few years.

Carol Elaine | June 27, 2007 08:17 PM

I'm too cheap to rent music I already own. Granted, I don't think I have as much music as Scalzi, but I have a fair amount. I'd rather rip 'em to my iBook, but still keep the CDs. Just in case.

Jeff Hentosz, thanks for the heads up on the USB turntable. I'll check that out myself, because not only am I too cheap to buy CDs when I have the vinyl (see above, though there have been a couple of exceptions), but I also have some rare vinyl that's never been released on CD. Not much - my vinyl collection is woefully pathetic.

I hate DRM, because I think once I buy the music, it's mine. Personally I like the idea of being allowed to download one song from an album for free, to see if it's something I'd like to buy. Trust me, if I like it, I will buy the entire album.

Steve Buchheit | June 27, 2007 10:03 PM

I agree that it just depends on how you use the music and what your expectations are. If I would rent (highly doubtful) I wouldn't mind DRM software to track it. However, for what I purchase, I really hate it on there. Especially if disables my abilty to play the music or video where I want to (such as some music CDs that refuse to play on computers).

MWT | June 27, 2007 10:23 PM

I'm more suited to Internet Radio myself. I like Pandora, which allows me to customize the general kind of music I want to hear, and then I just let it all play until something catches my attention.

Once I find something that catches my attention, I like to listen to it to death. 24/7 over and over. Would probably drive neighbors batty if I did it at a high enough volume. :) Usually I do this by looking it up on Youtube or Myspace or the band's official website.

Only after I've played something to death am I inclined to buy the song. I buy songs I know I like, and I only know I like it if I've heard it in full at least ten times. Therein lies the downside of artists who only post 30-second samples on Myspace and their websites and do their darndest to restrict access to their songs unless it's been paid for. Because it just means that I won't listen to them at all.

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