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Music biz strikes back with free, DRM ‘padlocked’ downloads

Massive take-up - trebles all round assured?

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The juxtaposition of the words "free", "music" and "download" had its all too predictable effect yesterday when what was categorised as the UK music industry's kinder, gentler riposte to P2P (Probably to Pirate) file sharing kicked off. Digital Download Day, masterminded by Peter Gabriel's distribution company OD2 (On Demand Distribution) resulted in seriously whopped servers at OD2.

A PR for OD2 sniffily told us the servers were not down, merely busy. Which is the sort of thing truculent techies tell us, and to which we answer, 'stop splitting hairs and just ruddy fix it.' That however has no great relevance, because the congestion itself is a measure of the success of the exercise, particularly as Digital Download Day was pretty much a surprise attack with little or no advanced publicity. It's intended to last for five days, and we expect it to produce monster traffic figures.

This has an upside and a downside. Upside: financially, the deal looks pretty reasonable. Downside: DRM. Downside 2: It's Microsoft DRM, Microsoft-only software and format, so it will have resulted in many happy smiling faces at Redmond, and Microsoft is that much further on towards becoming the only game in digital media town.

The financials are as follows. You register with your name and email at Digitaldownloadday.com and you're then sent a form of voucher, or as OD2 puts it a new form of music "currency" worth £5. Non-UK readers should note it's intended to be a UK-only offer. You can spend that currency by streaming one of 100,000 tracks for 1p, downloading one for 10p, or burning one to CD for £1.

These numbers don't seem wildly out of line with what you might expect to pay if the music industry switched from CD to digital distribution while retaining prices at approximately current levels. And you've got the upsides that you can listen to something before buying it for next to nothing, and you don't have to shell out for a band's entire remastered ouevre in order to get just the one cunningly concealed ultra-rare track. That's if the profiteering swine don't continue to be cunningly selective about what they'll release, in what sized package. Which we doubt.

In principle, however, this does look like the sort of packaging the general music-buying public could live with, without being provoked into overthrowing capitalism. Along the way though they'll acquire DRM-enabled software, and as we said earlier this will be Microsoft software. OD2 is pretty upfront about this, because although it only coyly says consumers "may need to download special software," it pitches the exercise as "a cross-industry initiative to promote legitimate digital music and counter digital music piracy," and explains it thus:

"The campaign is evidence of the music industry’s growing commitment to recapturing the initiative after a raft of websites, spawned by Napster, sprang up to trade pirate copies of digital tracks.

"Under those circumstances, the record industry was unwilling to release its music as digital files. However, with advanced Digital Rights Management software now able to ensure a track is effectively 'padlocked' to ensure it is used legitimately, the copyright owners are increasingly willing to offer music in a digital format."

So at the moment DRM is the only game in town as far as the record business is concerned, and this possibly means Microsoft is the only game in town already, which is what it certainly wants to be. What other company has the heft to be able to pitch itself as the outfit that can switch the channel from the now inherently unsafe CD format to a secure digital one that stops people 'stealing' their stuff? Sure, there are others, but The Beast already looks very strong.

The inherent Ts & Cs of the current OD2 model won't be immediately clear to buyers, but ought to be to journalists reading the two paragraphs above, which are from the release. In this case "padlocked" means that the streaming track will come in MS' most recent DRM format, as will the download track. These will therefore not be readable to software that doesn't support this format, so you won't be able to copy them to other formats, and you can go through the various bases that would have to be covered in order to convince the music business that this padlock really was a padlock. Copy to another machine? Nope. Copy to a player? Only a trusted one. And that CD you burned for your £1? To our surprise, and contrary to what we surmised earlier* what you get is a standard red book audio CD. This does kind of undermine the efficacy of the padlock, and we remain unconvinced that the music industry would be willing to go for such a system in the long term, particularly if it's simultaneously persisting with protection systems for retail audio CDs.

So what you've got for your deal is that you're paying about the same price for your music, with added flexibility. In exchange for this you have sacrificed your rights to, under the personal use get-out, copy it so that you can listen to it where, when and on whatever device you like. Unless you've bought the full burn version, then copied it again. But as we say, it's difficult to see the CDs remaining unprotected.

The fact that you've also had to use Microsoft software to do so is an added irritant, particularly as it's not at all difficult to envisage a point where Windows Media Player becomes compulsory for music listening in a way Internet Explorer could never quite achieve with the Internet. Which doesn't mean IE was a failure, of course, just a precursor - who needs browsers when you've got players, readers and viewers for protected content? But even if Microsoft isn't/won't be the only game in town, it doesn't make that much difference for the entertainment industry in its current mindset.

If Microsoft wasn't there, but they still wouldn't release digital content if they thought it wasn't secure, then you would still have DRM, and your rights would still have been eroded. So although Digital Download Day has at least a semi-convincing pricing and distribution model, it is in no sense (as the BMG soundbite* on the release puts it) a "bold and positive initiative." It is not - it is the next step in implementing the kind of system the entertainment industry, not the public, wants, and it perpetuates and tightens its existing policies on intellectual property. The kinder, gentler music industry has changed not one jot. ®

* Heading the soundbites we have Peter Gabriel himself: "It is time for the record industry to come out fighting. This heralds the 'end of the beginning' for the digital music industry as we move out of the pirate stage and into something altogether more workable." So we know where he stands, and can but hope it is not a candle he's blowing out. Pete?

* For the record, this is what we said earlier: And that CD you burned for your £1? Well, we're not about to go to all of the trouble of checking, but having the system spit out a standard unprotected audio CD at the other end would make the rest of the padlocking pointless, right?

Related stories:
Boucher's DMCRA sandbags Pigopolists, DMCA
Congress reps launch fightback on DRM rights erosion

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