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Not About the Expo: The Ticking DRM Time Bomb

I can tell you with absolute certainly that 99.99% of all Mac sites are busy ramping up their coverage of Macworld Expo, and we are too, although we’ll focus more on commentary than in presenting things you can read almost everywhere. In addition, a huge portion of the traditional media is right there behind them, or ahead of them if you choose to go that route.

This means much of what I might say that is related to the keynote Steve Jobs is delivering will find its way into the trash bin of unfounded rumors and speculation. Although I also co-host a radio show on the paranormal, as most of you know, I am definitely not gifted in that area. I just try to wade through the morass of confusion and try to shed a little light from time to time.

Instead, I’m going to expand on something that author and commentator Kirk McElhearn talked to me about when he appeared on The Tech Night Owl LIVE last Thursday, and which I expanded upon in our newsletter this week. And that is: What would you do if the music you downloaded suddenly stopped working?

This may not seem a likely prospect, but hear me out.

You may not believe that Apple Computer will go out of business anytime soon. Certainly — even though you may hate them with a passion — Microsoft is also there for the long haul. But imagine how the situation might change over the next few decades when it comes to content formats. Today consumer electronics makers are battling over two high definition DVD formats. Even if one of those formats emerges triumphant in the near term, or both reside in an uneasy truce with multiple format players there to fill the gaps, it won’t be very long before it all becomes obsolete.

Now even though there’s the possibility of an optical disc wearing out over time, you can otherwise be assured that, so long as you have the proper playing device, your CD, DVD, or whatever will still play normally. They will not expire, just as your LP and cassette collection won’t expire.

Consider now the situation with one of those subscription-based music download services. Once you invest in this sort of service, you are forever tethered to the company, because your music library has to be reauthorized on a monthly basis. If your credit card is declined, or you cancel it for any reason, you’ll have only a limited time to change your payment options before you lose your music and have to select and download everything again. Imagine spending weeks or months finding the stuff you want, only to be forced to go through that process a second time.

Even if that doesn’t happen, what if the company goes out of business or changes its marketing plan? Either way, how will they deal with subscribers, and even those who bought songs outright? When it comes time to reauthorize their PCs, will there be a successor company to handle the traffic and keep things working? It’s very doubtful.

But I’m sure the vast majority of you use iTunes instead. I’m also sure that you expect Apple to be in business forever, and the fact that you can authorize up to five computers (Macs and PCs) to handle the files you purchased should be a comfort to you. If you buy a new Mac, you just deauthorize the old one and you’re good to go.

On the other hand, do you truly expect Apple to continue to produce Macs forever? Even assuming the company continues to prosper, what will the computer of, say, 2027, look like and how will music and videos be handled? Will they provide support for the legacy product you bought years earlier?

In an ideal world, Apple would simply allow you to upgrade for a modest fee, so that you could continue to enjoy the fruits of your investment. I would hope Microsoft would take a similar approach, although the existing PlaysForSure partners must feel a sense of doom in light of the existence of the Zune.

In the end, though, it’s not Apple’s fault, and not Microsoft’s either. You see, the entertainment companies insisted on these restrictions because they’re desperately afraid of piracy. Obviously, downloading a file is a lot simpler than handing someone a copy made from a physical recording. So simple in fact, that the ravage of piracy persists even though there are legal ways to get this content, and the DRM schemes really aren’t all that onerous to most of us.

Since it’s the fault of the content makers, they need to figure out what to do if the time bomb goes off — or as Kirk calls it — the machine stops working. They have to learn to stop treating their customers like criminals and show the proper degree of respect. More to the point, they should work with the existing distributors to find a way out of this potential nightmare. Whether it’s a conversion system or a way to just free the stuff of DRM, I can’t say.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the entertainment industry really cares about such things. They’d be just as happy to force you to buy everything all over again. That’s irresponsible and greedy, of course, but that’s the way it is.