02 April 2007
There was an album in Fopp a while back that was only a pound and was by a band I was interested in. I can't remember who now, but it was probably some 80s synthpop group since I'm into that kind of thing at the moment. That's fantastically cheap: a lifetime worth of entertainment (if I like it enough to play it that long), for the price of a couple of chocolate bars.
But I left it on the shelf for one reason only: it was copy-protected.
As far as I'm concerned, that means it's broken. Obviously the record company thinks I'd copy it and give it to all my mates (if I could somehow find any that shared my taste in mostly long-forgotten bands). But all I really want to do is pay an honest price for music and be able to use it how I want. That means being able to put it in my digital music player, and this is exactly the kind of thing that copy protection prevents.
You might think that if I'm only paying a quid, I can't expect that much. But the point I wanted to make is that when I left this CD on the shelf, I realised I won't buy copy protected music at any price. It's just no use to me. Even when it's nearly free. And following Sony's efforts to infest our computers with malware, you'd be mad to let a record label install software on your computer for every album you want to play.
If you're paying for a product, you should be able to make whatever honest uses of it you want. That's the same reason I haven't yet bought anything from iTunes. The files are locked, so you can only play them on Apple devices. I still have and occasionally play the very first CD I bought in 1989. If I buy my music as downloads now, will I be able to play it in 20 years? Only if I use an Apple device, and keep buying them when they conk out, and we assume that Apple survives and keeps making iPods. (While it's true you can burn to CD and re-rip, you suffer a loss of quality).
So cheers all around to EMI and Apple, who today announced they would start selling EMI's catalogue without digital rights management locks. They're going to double the quality, and it's not going to cost you any more to buy an album. You'll have to pay more for individual tracks (presumably in a move to protect the album based business model, where hits are inevitably sold with filler). And in the long run, Apple could have a competitive advantage in hardware sales because it can offer cheaper versions that are only compatible with iPods.
It's good news because it means you'll be able to buy with confidence that you'll always be able to listen to your music collection. You'll be able to back it up using conventional devices, and replay it using the software or hardware of your choice. While digital formats are always at the risk of obsolescence, the risk is much smaller when a standard is adopted than when one company controls all the playback devices.
Here's hoping that other labels will follow suit, and also make their music available without proprietary locks. It can only grow the market. DRM won't prevent someone from copying music - they'll always find a way around it. It just deters honest customers from buying.