Do You Really Own Your Music?

by Steven Leigh Oct 16, 2007

You like to own your music. You would never consider “renting” your music from a subscription service. When you buy music, you want to own it for the rest of your life, right? Well, I have news for you: you may already be renting your music and not even know it.  In fact, you may not actually own any of those tracks you think you purchased online.

You’ve probably heard about some of the subscription services being offered by online music stores. You pay a fee, usually around $15 a month, and you can download as much music as you want for as long as you continue paying the monthly fee. The benefit of this model is obvious: you can download as much music as you want for one fee, and try out anything that strikes your fancy without having to pay for individual songs or albums. The downside is a big one, though: if you cancel your subscription, your songs will eventually expire, and you will not own any of the music that you downloaded. Essentially, you are just renting the music for the period of time that you are willing to pay the fee, and when you stop, your tracks go boom.

Ever since these subscription models came on the scene, people have questioned whether iTunes would ever make the option available.  Steve Jobs has dismissed the idea completely, and basically stated that iTunes would never offer subscriptions. Of course, he also said Apple would never offer video iPods, and we all know how that turned out. Still, Jobs’ reason for not offering a subscription service is that “people want to own their music.”  You see, with the iTunes store, you buy a song for $.99 and it’s yours forever, right?

Well, maybe so and maybe not. If you had asked me a year ago whether you own songs purchased from the iTunes store, I would have said yes. But that was before Google Video showed us all that “purchase” is a fuzzy term. Earlier this year, Google Video’s Premium service shut down. This was a service that allowed you to “purchase” videos, such as television shows, download them to your computer, and watch them anytime. Sounds like iTunes, right? Well, it turns out that in order for the video to play, the player has to go online and authorize the video every time you play it. When Google closed the service, the server that handles the authorizations would be shut down as well, rendering all those downloaded videos unplayable. Customers were outraged. They were under the impression that they owned these videos, which is not unreasonable considering they paid real money for them. Originally Google handed out refunds via a Google Checkout credit rather than an actual refund. The customers complained so much that Google eventually sent out real refunds and even allowed customers to keep their Google Checkout credit, effectively doubling their money, but the damage had been done. Suddenly, owning downloaded content feels a little more like renting. Do you still feel like you own your iTunes songs now? 

The real issue here is DRM, or Digital Rights Management. DRM is a form of copy protection encoded into digital media such as video and audio to prevent users from copying the media and sharing it with others. Some versions of DRM require the player to check for authorization when the media is played, which is what caused the problem with Google Video. The real issue is that iTunes and any other store that uses DRM is susceptible to the same problem. Right now it seems unlikely that the iTunes store will ever shut down, but what happens if it does? Eventually, your songs will require authorization to play again, and without any way to authorize them, they will become unplayable.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Apple wouldn’t just leave its customers hanging out to dry like that. They would arrange for us to authorize the songs forever. I agree they would try, but this is a very sticky issue. You see, Apple isn’t the only company involved. The media companies who produced and distributed the content would have a say in this, and most of these companies do not have a good record of thinking about the consumer. If they see an opportunity to make you buy their songs a second time, they might jump at the chance. The other possibility here is that if Apple were going bankrupt, they may not have the resources, time, or money to make this right. Worse yet, they may not care. But even if Apple doesn’t shut down, iTunes itself could become obsolete from a new technology or a new way of listening to and selling music. 

Even if none of these scenarios happen, it points out the inherent flaw in DRM. When I purchase content I expect to OWN that content. When I buy a CD or DVD, it will sit on my shelf for the rest of my life. If I pay for and download something from iTunes that is protected by DRM, I have no idea if it will even be playable in two months, let alone two decades. Apple has recently started offering songs DRM-free, and that’s a good start, but I’m not willing to pay extra money for these tracks, as I have to do on iTunes at the moment.

The good news is that other options are starting to show up. Amazon just opened a new Amazon MP3 Store that sells MP3 tracks (not AAC) with no DRM, for $.89 or less per song. It will also automatically add your tracks to iTunes. These tracks require no authorization in the future, and since they’re MP3 (the most compatible audio format) they will play on almost any digital music player on the market, including players from Creative, Microsoft, Sandisk, and other companies.

I believe that eventually DRM for music will become obsolete. It never really stopped piracy, which is what it was designed to do, and even the media companies are beginning to realize that it causes more problems than it’s worth. Apple has taken a good step by selling DRM-free music on iTunes, but stores like Amazon are hitting them where it hurts by offering lower prices for the same quality and a more open format. My hope is that all stores will eventually get rid of DRM, and then it won’t matter where you shop for music. All of it will be compatible with any player on the market, and you can shop by price and service instead of having to shop at a compatible store. The real winner here is the customer, as we will continue to get more options and less restrictions, and we don’t have to worry whether the music store where we bought our tracks is still in operation.
Then all we have to do is worry about video…


  • Your article makes an excellent point.  Most people won’t be aware they don’t own their music until it is too late.

    Unlike music subscription services, iTunes doesn’t continuously “phone home” to enable downloaded tracks.  Once a device is authorized for your account, it stays that way. If the iTunes store shut down tomorrow, your DRM’d tracks would continue to play on the authorized computers and iPods that they now do. But *only* those authorized devices… and there’s the rub.

    iTunes users should already be backing up their purchased music library in case their hard disc fails.  But the backed up files are still tied to the authorized devices. In order to fully preserve their investment, people should be using iTunes to burn plain audio CDs of all their purchased music.  It’s a lot of work, but if the worst comes to happen, these CDs could be re-ripped and loaded onto other devices without restriction (albeit with some audio degradation from recompression).

    Keep in mind that iTunes provides no similar capability for backing up non-DRM’d versions of purchased videos.

    By the way, call me old-school, but I don’t buy digital downloads (with or without DRM). I prefer purchasing physical media which is full-fidelity, tangible, collectable, and resalable. Perhaps if the price dropped by a factor of 10, I’d consider downloads a reasonable value.

    Brett Sher had this to say on Oct 16, 2007 Posts: 7
  • The problem with this story is that you can burn DRM free CD copies of the iTunes purchased music (7 copies in fact, or more if you change the track order). These CD’s are in effect are just like store bought CD’s, no DRM, just music.

    Apple and the music companies can’t take those away from you, nor can they prevent them playing in any CD player.  In fact they can be re-ripped into any format you like (you may lose a bit of quality but the music is still yours).

    It seems you are trying to make a problem where one does not exist!

    Parky had this to say on Oct 17, 2007 Posts: 51
  • Has anyone ever thought of the extra time and effort required to back-up all your downloads to cd? Not to mention the extra cost incurred

    I mean it seems like this act would cause you to pay back everything you saved by using downloads to begin with

    Habadasher had this to say on Oct 17, 2007 Posts: 20
  • You could use one CD-RW. It would take a while, but it would cost, like, a dollar.

    Benji had this to say on Oct 17, 2007 Posts: 927
  • Backing up to CD is not a viable option for two reasons:
    1. If you have a large collection (I have more than 4000 songs) this just won’t work.  And iTunes won’t let you burn to CD-RW discs anyway.

    2. You lose a LOT of quality by burning and re-ripping, plus you lose all the artwork and ID3 tags and have to re-do them all.  The quality of the DRM tracks on iTunes is only 128kbps, and if you reduce that anymore, it becomes unlistenable.

    By the time you have done all this, you might as well have bought the CD and ripped it yourself.  Then you have a full-quality backup already.

    Steven Leigh had this to say on Oct 17, 2007 Posts: 13
  • And iTunes won’t let you burn to CD-RW discs anyway.

    You lose a LOT of quality by burning and re-ripping
    If this is indeed a major problem, it would be a great service to humanity if someone would write an iTunes-burn-optimised ripper for audio CDs.

    Benji had this to say on Oct 17, 2007 Posts: 927
  • You can burn an Mp3 CD or data backup to a CD-RW, but NOT an audio CD from your DRM-infested tracks.  So this is not a way to backup and then re-rip your tracks.

    Did you actually try this before you said I was incorrect?

    Steven Leigh had this to say on Oct 17, 2007 Posts: 13
  • No! Only found an authoritative source! Monstrous!

    And I still contend that you’re wrong. I feel sure I have done this in the past. Did you read the article I linked to? Are you using >4x CD-RWs?

    I will test this when I can get around to buying some CD-RWs.

    Furthermore, you cannot actually burn MP3 discs from DRM-infested tracks. MP3 discs are according to the internets only burnable from existing MP3 files.

    Audio CDs burned to CD-RWs will not play in standard CD players, of course. But that’s not the point of this exercise.

    Benji had this to say on Oct 17, 2007 Posts: 927
  • Nowhere on that page do they state that you can burn protected files to a CD-RW, because you can’t.  You can only burn data to a CD-RW, and possibly non-DRM mp3 tracks.

    This whole discussion is just proving my point further.  Why should we have to jump through all these hoops just to backup songs we legally purchased?

    You can argue all these backup methods as much as you want, but I should be able to make a quick and simple backup of media I have purchased and know that it will work years from now.

    If I copy Amazon Mp3s to a hard drive for backup, or burn them to a data CD, I know they will work.  If I backup iTunes songs to a disc as data, in 4 years I may not be able to authorize it anymore.  Which do you think I will choose?

    Steven Leigh had this to say on Oct 17, 2007 Posts: 13
  • Nowhere on that page do they state that you can burn protected files to a CD-RW, because you can’t.  You can only burn data to a CD-RW, and possibly non-DRM mp3 tracks.

    To quote “that page”:
    ‘Check CD media
    Use a different brand of CD media that is 74 or 80 minutes long. Apple sells blank CDs at the Apple Store that should work with iTunes. Click on Music to find the discs.

    If you are using CD-RW (instead of CD-R) discs, only use CD-RW discs that are rated from 1x to 4x speed.’

    This is under the heading of burning audio CDs which I take to include audio CDs.

    This whole discussion is just proving my point further.  Why should we have to jump through all these hoops just to backup songs we legally purchased?

    We shouldn’t, Mr. Leigh, but that is not your point. As the following paragraphs in #10 make plain, your point is that it is conceivable that our iTS purchased music might become utterly useless under certain scenarios. I say that is inconceivable.

    Benji had this to say on Oct 17, 2007 Posts: 927
  • (I too am wherever possible only buying DRM-free iTunes tracks now or using the Amazon DRM-free service. But it is a matter of convenience (and politics) not the sky falling on iTunes purchases.)

    Benji had this to say on Oct 17, 2007 Posts: 927
  • Here’s the worst case (perfect storm) scenaro:

    1) Apple goes out of business or closes the iTMS without making provision for customers to migrate their music to unauthorized hardware.
    2) You haven’t made CD-R audio backups of your music.
    3) Your authorized hardware eventually fails and is unrepairable.

    #1 and #3 are beyond your control.
    #1 is a long shot, but IF it came to pass, this could actually lead to some good outcomes.  The public outrage would be sufficent as to forever destroy the future market for DRM’d music.  In addition, I suspect that law would be quickly enacted allowing consumers to use whatever means necessary to crack the DRM on purchased music. Providing tools and services for doing this would also be legalized.

    Brett Sher had this to say on Oct 17, 2007 Posts: 7
  • For the record, I just burned an iTunes-purchased, DRM-protected album to a CD-RW.  Using iTunes on an ‘unauthorised’ computer, I then imported the album as DRM-free mp4 files.  Voilà.

    Which shows that it is easy (and inexpensive: I can just keep using the same CD-RW) to back up one’s iTunes Store purchases.  It also shows that DRM is stupid.  In ten minutes’ time I can convert DRM-protected files into unprotected files, so DRM turns out to be more of an inconvenience than real protection against unauthorised reproduction of music.

    Take hope.  The future is DRM-free.

    schmendrick had this to say on Oct 18, 2007 Posts: 2
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