Denki News

July 15, 2006

iTunes Music Store Special Report, Part 1: FairPlay DRM Explained

Filed under: iPod & iTunes — icruise @ 9:50 pm

In this multi-part special report I’m going to examine some issues that all users of the iTunes Music Store should be aware of. First of all, I’d like to look at DRM (Digital Rights Management). DRM ties the songs or video that you download to you, making it so that other people can’t use them, and it also usually includes limitations on the ways that you can use the content that you download. DRM serves a couple of different purposes. From the standpoint of the record companies, its main purpose is to prevent people from sharing music over the Internet. For companies like Apple or Microsoft, it also serves to lock the consumer in to their particular service and prevent them from switching to competing services. (More after the jump.)

With many other online music stores, what you can do with your music changes from song to song. Some songs you can only be listened to on your computer. Some you can transfer to portable devices. Some you can burn to CDs. Sometimes you have to pay extra to do these things, sometimes you don’t. Obviously, this is confusing and makes using these services a chore. Why bother with all sorts of restrictions when you can just buy the CD and use it any way you want? (Or, many people are probably thinking, why not just download the music for free from a P2P service?)

One reason that the iTunes Music Store has been so successful is that it makes things simple. You have the same rights to all of the music that you buy. A lot of people don’t really look into these rules before they start using the service, though, so there is quite a bit of confusion about just what the rules are. Allow me to summarize:

  • You can play your songs on up to 5 different computers,
  • You can put them on an unlimited number of iPods (connected to one of the 5 authorized computers)
  • You can have music from 5 different accounts on one iPod at a time
  • You can burn songs to CD an unlimited number of times. (However, you can only burn the exact same playlist 7 times. I suppose this is to stop people just churning out hundreds of copies of an album that are exactly the same as the commercially available CD, although there’s nothing to stop you from just copying the CD that you burned, and of course there are no such restrictions on most “real” CDs. One thing I don’t know for sure is how Apple keeps track of what you have burned. I doubt that iTunes “phones home” every time you burn an iTMS track — and if that were true, you could just turn off your Internet connection to defeat it — so it’s probably stored in the iTunes library file somehow. But that would imply that simply using a different computer or library would reset your burn limits, which seems like too easy of a workaround.)
  • That’s pretty much it. The songs you buy are yours to keep.

These limits are relaxed enough so that most people will not find them overly restrictive. Most people do not have 5 computers that they need to listen to music on. This limitation, and the one about the number of accounts per iPod, is mostly just to prevent people from sharing purchased music with a large number of people. You can, in fact, still share music. It’s just very limited in scale, and since you have to give your password to whoever you want to share music with, you’re pretty much limited to family and close friends.

In the next installment of this series, I’ll examine some of the criticisms people have of Apple’s DRM.


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