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Watchdog demands MSN Music mea culpa

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The Electronic Frontier Foundation is demanding that Steve Ballmer make a public apology to all people silly enough to purchase tunes from MSN Music, Microsoft's long-defunct iTunes wannabe.

This morning, the San Francisco-based tech watchdog floated an open letter (PDF) to the hulking Microsoft CEO, criticizing the company's recent decision to unplug its MSN Music DRM servers. Without these servers - due to die at the end of August - users can't migrate their MSN tunes to new OSes or new machines unless they start burning CDs.

"Microsoft’s only suggestion for its customers — that they export the music to a CD and then copy it onto their new computers — is woefully insufficient to redress the problem," EFF executive director Shari Steele writes to Ballmer. "Microsoft is asking its customers to invest more time, labor and money in order to continue to enjoy the music for which they have already paid. In fact, Microsoft’s best customers will be the most heavily burdened — the more music they bought, the more work they’ll have to do."

Steele also argues that these CD burners could face the wrath of the Record Industry Ass. of America. "What is worse, this suggestion could put customers at legal risk, as they may not have documentation of purchase," he says. "There is no certainty that all relevant copyright owners would agree that making such backup copies without permission is lawful."

When we asked Microsoft for a comment, a company spokesman wouldn't give one. "Unfortunately, we are unable to participate in this request," he said. But in an interview with Cnet, Microsoft exec Robert Bennett defended the company's decision to destroy its MSN servers, arguing the move will affect only a small number of people.

"Every time there is an OS upgrade, the DRM equation gets complex very quickly," Bennett said. "Every time, you saw support issues. People would call in because they couldn't download licenses. We had to write new code, new configurations each time." So the company is moving the hassle off its own shoulders onto someone else's.

Bennett says that "going forward, the best thing to do is focus exclusively on Zune," the iPod wannabe Microsoft launched in November 2006, right around the time the company killed off MSN Music.

Of course, Zune's music service, Marketplace, uses DRM too. As Microsoft "focuses exclusively on Zune," the EFF questions whether Marketplace buyers will also face CD burning hell.

"While this announcement has directly affected MSN Music customers, users of other Microsoft products (particularly current and prospective Zune customers) are deeply concerned as well. Your customers are forced to ask, 'If Microsoft treats its MSN Music customers so shabbily, is there any reason to suppose that it will treat other customers any better?'"

How can Microsoft right this wrong? Naturally, the EFF has all the answers, telling Ballmer he should immediately and publicly "issue a full public apology to your MSN Music customers [and] offer to refund the purchase price of the affected downloads or, at the customer’s option, provide replacements from an online store that offers the same tracks in a DRM-free format."

But that's not all. The EFF also wants proofs of purchase for all MSN tunes, and it wants DRM removed from the Zune Marketplace. "Microsoft has said it would like to provide DRM-free tracks — it is time for the company to make that happen. Unless and until DRM is eliminated from the catalog, publicly commit to compensating customers along the lines outlined above should Microsoft’s business decisions cause Zune customers to lose the full value of the content they purchased through the Zune Marketplace."

But, wait, there's more. EFF won't be happy if Microsoft merely obeys these demands. It also wants Ballmer to publicize them with "advertising in major music magazines and newspapers in every major U.S. city, as well as targeted keyword advertising."

Presumably, the watchdog means targeted keyword advertising on Google, not Microsoft Live. We're sure they want those ads to have some reach. ®

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