‘Free’ Costello CD seeds DRM, MS Media Player 9
And 'I can't do that right now' hardware surfaces...
Hardware supporting Microsoft's Secure Audio Path DRM technology seems to have arrived, albeit somewhat bashfully, and as if that wasn't enough, today the UK Sunday Times newspaper unleashed a neat little trojan that'll upgrade you to Windows Media Player 9, complete with all those lovely facilities to protect 'your' music. If you're not careful, that is.
To remind you, Secure Audio Path is a Digital Rights Management technology designed to interpose its body between encrypted digital music and the output device, thus stopping DMCA-breaching criminals diverting the stream to an unauthorised application. In order to work  it needs compliant, authenticated output devices, and by a miraculous coincidence we've just been tipped off about one of the first cuckoos to go public - Creative Labs.
Microsoft itself publishes a helpful list  of players, marking those including Windows Media DRM, but bear in mind the list is dated May, so there should be quite a few more around by now. In addition, it's not particularly easy to track which PC sound cards and audio systems are compliant, so let's hear it for Creative, which has quietly announced a couple of them in the readme files of its Soundblaster Live update software.
"Microsoft's Digital Rights Management (DRM) is a technology which enables the copyright owner of an intellectual property (for example, a digital audio file), to control how the listener uses the file.
"To protect against unauthorised duplication, Sound Blaster Audigy [or Sound Blaster Live!, in the other readme] shuts down its digital output when encrypted files are played back through a Microsoft DRM supported audio player (for example, Creative PlayCenter)."
Creative will of course by no means be the only company whose products do this, and we wouldn't be at all surprised if many of them didn't feel the need to inform you of the feature on the packaging, in the manual, in the licensing agreement or even in a readme several folders deep in the software. But one can pick up the odd clue. Here, for example,  is one of Microsoft's lists of audio chip manufacturers supporting WMA format. Note the reference to Corona (WMP 9) and, way down at the bottom: "Windows Media offers the industry's only integrated digital rights management solution."
The hardware could get kind of tricky to avoid, but the file format itself is currently less so. Which makes today's Sunday Times exercise rather interesting. As far as we know this is the second such exercise performed via a ST freebie. We didn't pick up on the first (Oasis, sorry people), but we've had a good look at this one.
It consists of preview tracks from Elvis Costello's When I was Cruel - Collector's Edition, due out on Monday. There are some audio tracks, which are unprotected, a couple of unprotected WMAs and a couple of protected ones, which you're only supposed to be allowed to play four times. Wearing our best face-mask and lab coat, we investigated.
Linux finds the file system on the CD alien, and declines to mount it. You can cancel the autoplay and browse the CD under XP, then copy a protected track to the hard disk and try to open it with Ashampoo,  which is a nice little player which also supports .ogg files, and which we just recently discovered. It starts out thinking it's a WMA file, but then reports an unsupported file format.
OK, so what happens if you let the CD autoplay? You get the Sunday Times opening screen, then clicking continue takes you to a screen listing the tracks, what you can do with them, together with entries for "how it works" and "test your PC." The salient points of the first are that you need:
"-Windows Media Player 7.1 or later, configured to automatically acquire licenses.
-A internet connection is necessary to acquire a license for the protected tracks."
The test routine merely checks if you qualify and points you in the right direction if you don't. Opening the files with WMP, by the way, takes you in pretty much the same direction. You get the following message:
"The content you are accessing requires an additional level of security. In order to play it, you will need to update your Digital Rights Management Installation.
"When you click OK, Windows Media Player sends a unique identifier for your computer to a Microsoft service on the Internet. Click learn more to find out how the Microsoft service protects your licenses, files, and your privacy."
Unhappily, as Agnitum firewall  was in the way we never did learn how Microsoft was protecting us. The page of recommended media players is however here.  Note that the XP installation is running WMP 8, but that it still needs to have its DRM switched back on (which we presume would happen if we persisted) and to have the unique identifier issued. OK, try Windows 2000 with WMP 6 on it. On trying to play a file with this, you're advised that Media Player 7.1 or above is needed, and if you go ahead and click on upgrade, it takes you through to the Media Player 9 beta. At the bottom there's a link for all available versions, but even there you've got the beta listed first.
So, you've got a free preview of a couple of tracks, and you can listen to them each four times so long as you just follow the instructions. If you do, then you'll (most likely) end up with the beta of Microsoft's latest DRM player, and you'll also have your settings changed so that your installation facilitates DRM, WMA format and pay per play. But don't worry, it didn't cost you anything.* ®
* We were contacted by a reader a couple of weeks ago with a cautionary tale about players that protect your music. The reader was maybe a little careless, true, but it's easily done for people who never look in their settings, and who might not notice things getting switched on. Say you've recorded bought CDs using WMP, and you decide before upgrading to XP you'll do a clean install, so you back up your music files, vape the disk and then do the install. You did back up your licences as well, didn't you? Oh dear...
MS plans 'Secure PC' that won't copy pirated audio files 
Microsoft DRM home page
No really, it has one...