MSN: the sound of silence

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EFF Executive Director Shari Steele fired off a nastygram today to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, blasting the company for abandoning customers who bought 99-cent downloads wrapped in a soon-to-be-defunct DRM. Although I think the letter is unrealistic on some points, Steele hints at a step Microsoft could take that would be truly helpful to buyers stuck with song files that just won’t play.

Last week Microsoft announced that, as of Aug. 31, it would stop providing new DRM keys for songs bought from the MSN Music store, a failed iTunes competitor that Microsoft shuttered in 2006 in favor of its new Zune Marketplace and RealNetworks’ Rhapsody. Back in those days, every track sold at MSN, iTunes and other online outlets of major-label music came wrapped in a DRM that limited copying. Microsoft has continued making DRM keys available to owners who want to copy the track onto a new computer, or whose music-playing software gets corrupted. After Aug. 31, though, those capabilities will no longer be available.


I’d be outraged about this, too, if a) it hadn’t already happened several times in the digital-music space (Remember RioPort? Liquid Audio? BlueMatter?); b) recorded music products weren’t so vulnerable to breakage; and c) MSN customers had no way to circumvent the DRM. But as everyone who buys digital music should know, the downloads can (and should) be converted into conventional, unlocked audio CDs. Consumer should do this routinely, if for no other reason than to have a backup copy. Those CDs can be re-ripped, and if you’re fussy about sound quality, you can use a lossless format to prevent any further compromises to the original file. Of course, if you were really fussy about sound quality, you would have been buying CDs, not highly compressed downloads. But I digress.

In addition to an apology, Ms. Steele argues that Microsoft owes MSN Music customers refunds and receipts. That’s a bit like saying Microsoft should apologize to and reimburse the people who bought Office for Windows ME and now find that it doesn’t work on their Vista machine. Let’s give consumers a little bit of credit here -- and some personal responsibility -- for knowing that songs wrapped in DRM are like software. They don’t last forever. Hard drives crash, online retailers disappear. Meanwhile, vinyl warps and scratches, and turntable manufacturers stop making replacement needles. The analog world had its replacement cycles, too, albeit ones that didn’t come around as quickly.

Still, she’s right that Microsoft isn’t doing enough for its former customers. At the very least, it should maintain a database with records of its customers’ purchases. Such a database would respond to Ms. Steele’s concern about MSN Music shoppers being vulnerable to RIAA lawsuits. It also would let MSN’s customers take advantage of services that let users download new copies of the media they’ve purchased in formats that work on a different set of devices. That’s the direction CinemaNow is heading, and it’s something the folks at DLNA have talked about as well. In fact, Microsoft reportedly toyed with a similar idea when it was developing what became the Zune player -- letting people re-download the DRM-wrapped tracks they’d bought from iTunes, which otherwise wouldn’t work on a Zune. Unless, of course, they’d burned their iTunes purchases onto CD and re-ripped them into high-bitrate MP3s, which is what they should have been doing.

Happily, the chance of more episodes like this is diminishing as the record labels give up on DRM for 99-cent downloads. Although the EFF sees nothing good in DRM, I think it can help segment the market and enable business models that deliver more content at a lower price. But the value of DRM will remain suspect as long as content owners slap it onto songs and other digital goods that are marketed as permanent copies and sold at full price.