• Online Music Security: They Can’t Copy Protect Your Ears!

    February 19th, 2005

    Before the dust settled on the introduction of the Napster-To-Go online music rental service, reports about breaking its copy protection technique began to surface. Of course, it’s actually Microsoft’s Digital Rights Management scheme, but that’s beside the point.

    I first got wind of it as I was taping an interview for this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE. The story didn’t come as a surprise, although the “secret” technique described is really not anything new.

    Now maybe you aren’t interested in what happens to Napster, since the service isn’t available for Mac users, or at least not yet, but it’s a good indication of how such reports can get out of hand.

    What is this secret technique, and can it affect other music services, such as Apple’s? The answer, of course, is yes, but it doesn’t involve cracking anyone’s DRM. All you have to do is run a program that can record the music as it is playing on your computer. There are programs of this sort for both Mac and Windows users, and while it will capture the audio with total digital accuracy, it’s a time-consuming process. It will take 100 hours to record 100 hours of songs.

    The actual DRMs haven’t been broken, just bypassed. Now I suppose there’s a way around this too, such as inserting some kind of “masking” sound at a frequency above the range of human hearing (or at least most humans), which would simply distort the recording beyond recognition. But you can then filter the affected frequencies to block that noise, so the cat-and-mouse game can continue.

    And of course, they can’t copy protect your ears, at least not yet, although I gather the movie and music companies would love to do just that, if they could get away with it.

    The real issue is whether the music rental business model really makes sense. I suppose paying $15 a month to access a library of a million songs seems attractive. Napster’s new wrinkle is the ability to copy your tunes onto a selected set of music players, which does not, of course, include the iPod. But even if you had a Windows box on hand, and, say, one of those players, would you really want to sign up?

    Remember, your songs will have a built-in clock that will disable them if you decide to cancel your subscription. Even the songs on those music players, because they have to dock with the PC periodically to make sure your account is active. Remember, your subscription is being paid for by monthly reductions from your credit or debit card. If the card is no longer active, or the charge exceeds your credit line or bank balance, your subscription is in danger of being interrupted. The next time you connect the music player to the PC, the clock stops and so does all that music you spent hours and hours downloading.

    And don’t think of taking a long vacation with your music player in tow without access to a PC once a month, so your music library can be renewed. You may want to get away from technology, but the time bomb is ticking on your rental library.

    Let’s forget , for the moment, the fact that most people appear to want to own their music. When you sign up with a subscription service, you are putting your faith in the company’s longevity. Even if you want to keep the subscription in force, you have to believe the service will somehow outlive you. If it goes out of business, your songs are toast. Oh, of course, you can stream all the songs and capture the audio, but is it worth that effort? Don’t forget that you’ll still have to manage the audio files you create, since those recording programs won’t break them up into individual albums and tracks automatically.

    In addition, that $15 a month, even assuming the price is never increased, can add up faster than you expect. Say you keep the subscription in force for 10 years. During that time, you will have paid Napster-To-Go or another service $1,800. If you were to buy complete albums online at, say, $10 a piece, you can buy 180 of them for the same amount of money. If you assume each album has 12 songs, which isn’t unusual, that’s 2,160 tunes. With a subscription service, the day you stop paying, the library is history. If you buy the songs, they stay with you forever. I bet some of you still have LP records around, and perhaps some records in older formats, such as 78s. Such collections may have been built up for decades, passing down from grandparents, to parents and to children. And on it goes.

    Many of the music companies that made those vintage recordings are out of business, yet the songs live on.

    I don’t know about you, but to me renting music may be all right on a temporary basis, perhaps to sample tracks you’ll eventually buy. Maybe the 30-second sample isn’t sufficient, but on a long term basis, the idea is just plain stupid. While my collection isn’t as old as some, I still have CDs I bought over 20 years ago, and they play just great. If I don’t like an album, I simply trade it in at a store that sells used CDs. That’s how my son built his large collection, taking a few dollars from his allowance each week and saving up for the music he loves best.

    Clearly Apple is betting its future on the belief that millions and millions of you are on the same wavelength.

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