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August 20, 2006

The 5 Dangers of Buying DRM'ed Media


A generation of people are being mislead by some glitzy marketing. They are buying music and other media off of services like iTunes thinking that they "own" this media. But unlike the generation before them was able to do with all those CDs they purchased, this new generation probably won't be able to enjoy their music and other media for many years to come. Instead, they're making a purchase today that will likely become worthless to them, and perhaps much sooner than they think. As I've heard Ian Rogers over at Yahoo! Music state several times, the iTunes music file is the equivalent of the 8-track cassette for this generation. So with that said let me present 5 very real dangers associated with buying DRM media:

1. Your next media player might not be an iPod - Right now everyone is in love with the iPod and for good reason. It's by far the superior device and experience for personal media. However, history tends to repeat itself and one thing we know from history is the gadgets that are dominant rarely stay on top for long. Microsoft is going to launch its new Zune soon and it may or may not be the coolest thing since sliced bread. Knowing Microsoft it probably won't be but other companies are going to launch other players and eventually there is probably going to be something out there that's cooler than the iPod. If all of your media was purchased from the iTunes Music Store (or any other place selling content in a proprietary format) you've pretty much locked yourself in to buying a particular type of device in the future. I'm not sure about you but that's not what I want to do. And besides, it's possible that your next MP3 player might not even be a dedicated MP3 player. Instead, it's quite possible that...

2. Your phone will be your next media player - Almost all of the new phones coming out right now have media playing capabilities built-in. For a while you'll probably find that whatever you're doing with your iPod is going to be superior to the experience on your phone. However, over time that will change and within a few years your phone will provide an iPod-like experience and eliminate the need for you to carry to devices everywhere (heck, the Nokia N91 is almost there today). So if you've bought a bunch of music in a proprietary file format (such as the iTunes Music Store) you really need to ask yourself the question "Am I prepared to not be able to listen to stuff on my phone in the future?" Sure, Apple will launch an iPhone sometime and it'll probably be cool but the fact of the matter you'll probably want to keep your options open for a while.

3. You have no idea how you might want to share your media in the future - Oh my gosh are there a lot of cool new media-sharing devices and technologies these days. Slingbox. Sonos. Roku. Bluetooth. Some of these work well with DRM'ed content and some don't. And who knows how the media-sharing devices of the future will respond to all of these proprietary file formats. The bottom line is that if you want to keep your options open and be able to use all of the kick-ass devcies that are on the horizon you'd be well-advised to have most or all of your media stored in an open, non-proprietary file format like MP3. Otherwise, you just might be SOL...

4. You might decide you want to get a new computer in the future - Yes, it's quite possible that the computer you are on right now might not be the same computer you'll be using a few years in the future. I'll go out on a limb and say that you'll likely want a little more memory and processing power down the road which will mean you'll have to upgrade. Will your music and other DRM'ed media go with you? Maybe... Music services such as iTunes/Rhapsody/etc. have ways you to authorize new computers and de-authorize computers you are no longer using. But can they guarantee that it won't be a pain in the ass? Nope, many people who have to do spend many hours of frustration dealing with this. And an unsettling number of people can't their media to work at all with their new computer.

5. Two words "Sony Rootkit" - Everyone knows about the Sony rootkit fiasco. That only affected people that had bought DRM-infected CDs. However, there's nothing to guarantee that something similar won't affect digitally downloaded files in the future. After all, DRM protection is always changing. For example, a while back Apple modified its firmware to make it incompatible with Real Networks music track. Now, it's important to point out that there hasn't been a case where DRM'ed files have rendered someone's computer inoperable. Having said that, I'd be very surprised if there weren't a scandal similar to the Sony rookit one that does affect downloadable content in the future. Given the ever-changing nature of DRM and the lengths to which some content providers will go to try to protect their works it could quite easily happen. And I don't want to be there when it does.

There are no doubt many other reasons not to buy DRM'ed media (including the very important one that you are supporting DRM with every DRM-laden purchase) but I think these five give a pretty compelling reason to avoid purchasing this type of content in the future. Now, I'm not adamantly against all shapes and forms of DRM. Sometimes it does make sense. For instance, it would be pretty hard to pull off an "all-you-can-eat" music service like Rhapsody/Yahoo Music/Napster without DRM. So in this case I'm not against DRM (I personally LOVE Rhapsody).

But the bigger problem is people (mostly unsuspecting teenagers and 20-somethings) buying DRM-laden media and thinking that they will be able to play that media ten or twenty years down the road (just like the generation before was able to enjoy CDs many years later). That almost assuredly will not be the case. Unless you're interested spending tons of time on the tedious (and potentially illegal depending on how you interpret the DMCA) task of removing the DRM from your media.

So where do you go to find DRM-free media? A while back I wrote a post entitled A Guide to DRM-Free Audio and that's a great place to start. Music services like eMusic and Audio Lunchbox rock and will only get better with time (especially as we lend them more support). And you can get a ton of spoken word content (audiobooks, podcasts, etc.) DRM-free as well.

If you still want to go out an buy DRM'ed content that's totally cool. Just don't say you weren't warned about what might happen. :)