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Designing a Defense for Mobile Applications

Comment The world's mainstream media has been amazed by reports that the DRM technology intended to protect songs supplied by Napster's To Go can be bypassed, "potentially letting [users] make CDs with hundreds of thousands of songs for free", as one astounded Reuters reporter put it.

And it's true, they can. But then they've always been able to. The trick is nothing new. Napster To Go was only launched earlier this month, so it has a fairly high media profile right now. That's really the only reason why it has been singled out for its inability to guard against such techniques. It's no more a blow to Napster's service, its business model or Microsoft's DRM software now than it was on the day before Napster To Go launched.

Napster, of course, has other problems facing its music-subscription business, from its own costs to consumers' preference for one-off downloads.

Briefly, the DRM bypass technique uses a small software utility to hijack the digital soundstream sent by the DRM-decoding playback application to a PC's sound card and save it to the hard disk as a DRM-less music file. Similar tools exist on Mac OS X and almost certainly on Linux too. It's ultimately no different than burning the songs to CD then re-ripping back in a DRM-less format such as MP3 - it just saves the price of a CD-R and a little time.

Users have been able to apply this technique to Napster's other subscription service and, to other online music suppliers, from Apple's iTunes Music Store to RealNetworks' Rhapsody.

All these companies are aware of the problem - and the fact that there's very little they can do about it beyond point out the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) - which renders bypassing copy protection technology a felony - and state that it's also contrary to the user's licence to use the downloaded music.

Efforts are underway to block such tricks by integrating DRM support into the sound chip itself, in effect leaving the decryption process to the very last moment before the digital audio data is converted into an analog sound wave. But that still leaves the speaker output capable of being recorded. For most people, this is too much effort - it's easier just to buy the song, or download it from a P2P service after the track has been posted by someone who did go to the trouble.

All the more reason then, to seek out new business models that allow for this kind of thing and still ensure performers, publishers and labels get their cut. And no one has to lose their record collections when they cancel a credit card. ®

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