You may remember recently there was the enormous furore about Sony and its rather suspect little bit of software (XCP) that came on some very innocent looking CDs with the aim of copy-protecting the music on them. The dust seems to have settled in the media over the Sony incident but the media industry in general seems intent on maintaining some sort of copy protection.
Many would argue that it is their right to do so, and they may be correct. Let us consider the example of the restriction of how many times a particular digital song can be copied or burnt to a CD. What is a reasonable number of times to be able to do this, 5, 10, 25? Inherent in the answer to this question will be the length of time you want to be able to use the song for. Not only does this refer to how often you might change your computer system – or for that matter how many times you have to recover your system from scratch (not too many I hope!), but also as I recently discovered, how long you might want to keep your home-burnt CD copy of your digital file since I recently discovered that these can only be expected to last 2 to 5 years!
So despite the promises of the wonders of digital music and how we needn’t be tied to a specific physical storage medium, we are still in effect limited by what we store it on, just as in the past when tapes were superseded by CDs. You only get the use of the music for a limited time. In reality therefore when we buy music we are actually renting the music for the lifetime of the tape/CD/digital format. This is where you might argue that the music industry has a perfect right to do that. In my view though, they must sell it with that caveat easily apparent to the purchaser. In the case of tapes and CDs you could argue that this is obvious; however, when it comes to digital music, unless you are much more than just a casual downloader then do we actually know what it is we are buying?
(This BBC article did enlighten me about something I hadn’t yet come across – renting access to a giant music database. You pay a subscription, and while you continue to do so you can access and use any of the songs (I believe the ability to copy it to your portable player costs a bit more). Once you cease paying you can no longer access the songs. A simple and intriguing idea. ). Back to my point though…..
I’m probably a prime example at the moment, having recently joined the world of IPod users, I downloaded my first ITune last week. I didn’t see any warnings when setting up my account or downloading the song about the restrictions it seems they place on the number of times you can burn the song to CD. I guess it’s all in the license agreement somewhere, and yes it’s my fault I couldn’t be bothered to read it all as usual! The fact that the songs are in this AAC format is a bit more obvious I suppose, but I suspect unless you’ve been using portable media players for a while now, the reality of how restrictive this format is will be unlikely to hit you. Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not singling out Apple as the bad guys here, I suspect that similar experiences abound with other providers as well. So far I’m pretty happy with my IPod (I’m frequently amazed by carrying a tiny computer with 30Gb of memory in my pocket when my parents used computers that required punch cards and took up entire rooms!) and I’ve no idea if any of the other options out there are any better or any worse.
This brings me to my point: the digital music industry is a quagmire for the unwary or inexperienced customer. The companies involved need to make what they’re selling absolutely clear so that the consumer can make an informed decision about what they will get for their small green pieces of paper.