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DRM: who needs it? UK label stands up for its customers

Warp Records catalog - come and get it, restriction free

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Pioneer British electronic label Warp Records has struck a blow for computers users by making its entire back catalog available for download - unencumbered by the toxic DRM restrictions that the pigopolists insist on.

The Sheffield label carries quite some commercial clout, as it's home to international draws such as The Aphex Twin, LFO, Boards of Canada, and the band currently topping US college station charts, Broadcast.

In stark comparison to its anaemic, muzak-filled online rivals, the label has also drawn on names outside the music industry, giving refuge to such talents as filmmaker/artist/model Vincent Gallo, and Britain's greatest satirist, Chris Morris. It's class you can't buy, and the back catalog numbers over a hundred releases. In commercial terms, it's the largest internationally-renowned label to risk such a move.

"At the moment labels have skirted around the whole issue of making their catalogue available, often introducing various poorly-supported formats and DRM (digital rights management) complications in the process. We wanted to be the first to take a big step in what we believe is a positive direction, and see what happens," the company says in its FAQ.

Through its Bleep store, Warp prices the music slightly higher than the online kiosks that have trailed in the wake of Apple Computer's iTunes service. The quality is much higher too, using the GPL LAME encoder, Warp's catalog is encoded at 205 kbps (VBR), as opposed to the more common 160 kbps. Songs are available for $1.39 each - higher than the 99 cents set by iTunes and its copycats - but that forty cents buys the computer users a lot of freedom.

Shoppers at Bleep will discover no nasty surprises, and will have the confidence that they're not engaging in a Hollywood-controlled social engineering experiment. Warp simply places no restrictions on the music on offer. Once you've paid your money, you can Rip, Burn and Mix to your heart's content.

You can't get there from here

While pioneer online music services such as Emusic offered DRM-free music at a low bit rate they were thwarted by the major labels' reluctance to open their back catalogs. Meanwhile, the computer industry, albeit at times with some reluctance, generally stood fast against Hollywood-driven demands that personal computers cripple legitimate users' rights.

As the major labels, in the shape of the lobby group the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), pressed for the computer industry to restrict users copying files to another computer (such as a Walkman or iPod) public pressure forced the tech industry to stymie such initiatives as CPRM. With good reason: for introducing DRM onto a personal computer effectively terminated its value as an open platform. DRM makes a PC as dumb as a Walkman: and that's a tectonic shift in the power landscape.

However, last spring, Apple Computer broke ranks and cut a deal with the labels, offering a limited selection of music, while agreeing to take onboard the RIAA's restrictive DRM desires. The labels promised to cede a bit of music for online distribution. Apple promised to make DRM palatable.

Hailed by some at the time as a 'liberal' move, few were deceived that control had decisively shifted to the entertainment industry, giving them the boss hand for the first time. With the computer companies now dependent on RIAA 'content', the labels could shut off their rights management as they saw fit.

And so with the personal computer industry now suitably compliant, the RIAA embarked on a campaign of civic terror, seeking to criminalize a human activity that has been a staple of popular culture for several thousand years. A sleeping judge opened the door to the labels to mine the names of file swappers from ISPs, and over a thousand threats followed. The RIAA terrorized twelve year old girls, planned to seed bombs at random on personal computers, and more recently, has fraudulently adopted the paramilitary trappings of the state to stage "raids" on parking lot attendants.

The music industry's indulgence of the gadfly online services has only ever been about one thing: ensuring its copy control technology achieves dominance through hegemony - and this month Apple and Pepsi will team to "give away" a hundred million DRM-poisoned songs - what it couldn't achieve through stealth or force.

By contrast, Warp's positive statement shows a faith in its own catalog, and a faith that users will find more value in the "brand" than the bits and bytes they download. Where can we begin to thank them? Perhaps by helping ourselves to their abundant, and wonderful catalog. You first. No, you. ®

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