Music: Free as a Bird

What do you mean when you say the word, “Free?” In software, we have two meanings, one is expressed as “free as in beer” and the other is “free as in speech.” This applies to music as well. There is music you can download for free, there’s also music you have to pay to download. Often you can pay for music and get far less than you expect, even if the song is exactly what you want.

There are a number of music services available now that let you pay a small price for a song, download it, and play it. But the question is what are they really offering? For example, Major League Baseball used to sell videos of games online. You could pay for a game, download it, and watch it as much as you wanted on your computer. Then, a little while later, MLB changed their system. Suddenly all the videos people had downloaded would no longer play. People had paid for videos, expected to be able to watch them whenever they wanted, and without any warning these videos were suddenly nothing but useless files on their hard drive. Someone I know has a subscription to Rhapsody, a music service by Real.com. Rhapsody has made some changes and suddenly this person is not able to download or play their music as before.

This is the result of something called DRM. Officially DRM stands for Digital Rights Management, but it might be more accurate to say it means Digital Restrictions Management. Record companies are scared. The big stores have had to close and their entire business model is changing. This fear is leading to a lot of dumb moves, including heavy use of DRM. What this means is that you can pay for music and they control it. You can buy a song, but only play it on certain devices. If they decide to change their business methods, you may no longer be able to even play that song again, just as all the customers of MLB’s video service suddenly lost the ability to watch videos they had paid for.

This is where “free as in speech” comes in. Free speech is about being able to say what you want, to express yourself, and to have control over your freedoms. Even most music on iTunes is not free as in this sense. Buy a song for 99 cents and you can play it on your iPod or several other devices, but that’s it. You’re limited in how many places you can play it and adding and removing devices can be problematical. Recently iTunes has added a new possibility. For $1.29, instead of $.99, you can download songs that are in a higher quality sound format than their regular MP3 files and these new songs are DRM free. For an extra $.30, you can download songs you can play anywhere you want.

This is free music. Yes, you pay for it, but once you get it, you control it. If your computer crashes and you want to play it on another computer (provided you’ve backed it up), there’s no issue with authorized devices. Free. Play it where you want, when you want it and they can’t change their system down the line to make it unplayable later.

Another interesting side story involves Microsoft and their take on DRM. They have been pushing DRM for a few years. If you examine the new features in Vista, you’ll find that there is more in Vista focused on DRM than anything useful. From their point of view, this makes sense. If they can control what you do with songs and videos you pay for, and collect fees for doing so, they make a lot more money. They start controlling how, when, and where you can listen to and view your songs and videos. Last year they came out with a music player called the Zune. At that time they had been using a format called “PlaysForSure” for DRM. Here’s the catch: If you had downloaded songs under “PlaysForSure,” then tried to put them on Microsoft’s own music player, they wouldn’t play. After buying music from Microsoft and their partners, if you wanted to listen to it on their player, you had to pay to download the songs again. You buy it. They control what you do with it.

So what makes sense? Paying someone for music they can control or paying someone else for music you control?

So far I’ve only covered a small part of the story. I haven’t touched on the file sharing issue. In short, record companies feel they are losing money because people buy songs, then make them available, for free, through file sharing. I won’t go into that on this post, but in short, it’s not only illegal, it’s immoral. It’s one thing to have control over my music, it’s another to give it to the world so people don’t pay those who created it. There’s also Sony’s debacle. To protect music on some CDs they were selling, they put a hidden program on the CDs. If you ever played one of these CDs on Windows, it secretly installed this program which actually made your system vulnerable to attacks by viruses. At any level, hurting your customers like this is just plain dumb — and that’s going with a polite interpretation.

So, after saying all this, how about doing something to solve the problem? Here are links to several places on the web where you can download music that is not restricted by DRM:

  1. iTunes: Perhaps the best known online music store of all. They sell music that is both DRM protected and DRM free (as in no restrictions). Just be clear on what you’re buying before you buy it. The DRM free tracks sell for $1.29 instead of $.99. The only issue to be aware of is these tracks are also in a different format, providing a better sound (MP3 files have some issues with quality). Instead of being MP3 files, they are in AACS. Check to be sure your music player can play this file format before downloading.
  2. Amazon.com: The granddaddy of all web stores offers music for download, but, even better, is that it offers DRM free music. I’ll add a warning that I have not fully explored what they offer, so I would advice checking to see if the tracks you’re downloading are DRM free or not. Perhaps it’s all DRM free, I just haven’t had time to check it.
  3. Walmart.com: It hurts me to include this, but even a broken clock is right twice a day. While I boycott Wal-Mart for many reasons, one thing they’ve got right is selling music without DRM. This is a link to the music part of their site where you can buy DRM free music.

I have not bought music from any of these online stores. I’ve checked into them and looked up some info on them but I have to admit I’m still stuck on the idea of physically owning what I buy and still prefer CDs. Besides, I don’t run Windows, so I can put in any CD that will play on a CD player into my Linux computer and copy the files to my hard drive so I can play them through Slimserver.

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This entry was posted in Computers/Internet, Digital Music, Free and Open Source Software. Bookmark the permalink.

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