Dale Preston's Web Log
Sunday, December 23, 2007

To DRM or Not to DRM

I haven't been involved much in the Windows Media Player newsgroups as much as I had planned this year; work and family have just taken all my time. I have found myself there much more the last few weeks, though.

Not much has changed. The same questions are the most frequent questions today as were when Windows Media Player 11 was released. And one of the more frequent topics is DRM, or Digital Rights Management. There are frequent questions from users who have lost access to their protected media or are afraid they might lose access to their protected media.

I don't have much to say on the topic of how to use DRM - I don't use it. What I want to talk about is why not to use DRM and how not to use DRM.

Let me say that all of this discussion is about DRM as it relates to music files, not video DVDs. DVDs are encrypted and protected in the United States by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act or DMCA. There is no way to copy them without DRM in the United States that will not get you prison time - in spite of previous laws that provide for your right to protect your investment and guarantee your fair use of the product you purchased.

There are two primary sources for protected audio files in the Windows environment:

  • Music purchased and downloaded online
  • Ripping CDs using Windows Media Player with protection enabled.

  • Buying DRM Online

    Probably the most common way to get DRM is to buy it intentionally. Most downloaded music (from legitimate download sites) comes as either protected WMA files (Microsoft format) or protected AAC (Apple format) files.

    There are many problems with both of these formats, DRM and not-DRM:

    1. Both of these formats, when protection is applied, limit your ability to copy the tracks to other PCs or to burn to CD. They have the ability to limit how many or what type of copies you can make.

    2. When you use copy protected music, you aren't buying a copy of the music. You are renting it. The copy remains the property of the store where you buy the music. Since they do include limits on how many PCs you can authorize the music for, at some point you will have replaced your computer often enough to run out of authorizations. My wife reads eBooks because of failing eyesight - just normal farsightedness that comes with age - but we are already having to consider limits when thinking of replacing her PC. Since she started reading them, we've upgraded her PC 6 out of 9 possible authorizations.

    3. What happens when the store you bought the tracks from goes out of business? Or licensing models change? How long will you be able to play your protected track? Microsoft is one of the biggest companies in the software and media business but even they have closed down MSN Music after tens of thousands, if not millions, of tracks were purchased and downloaded.

      So far, Microsoft is maintaining the MSN Music license servers and users should be able to access their media. I don't believe it will be that way for long. What happens 10 years from now after those servers have not generated a single cent in new revenue? Will Microsoft still pay for new hardware and upgrades to those servers? And for security patches and for modifying the current licensing software to work with new versions of Windows Server? I seriously doubt it.

      And what about other companies other than Microsoft. There have been other companies that sold music online that are no longer in business. Some of those companies did not have the resources from other sectors to maintain the license servers after the online music sales went defunct. Their customers are just out of luck the next time they patch or upgrade Windows Media Player or Windows. Or buy a new PC. There music rental is terminated without recourse.

    4. All online music stores that I know of only sell compressed music - even the ones that sell MP3s. The compression schemes used for most music downloads are lossy - as in a loss of quality over the original Red Book Audio formatted PCM of the CD. The only way to compress digital audio - or to make the file size smaller - is to strip out bits of data. Those missing bits of data generally represent missing sound detail.

      (Note, there are lossless compression schemes that strip out data such that it can be rebuilt exactly like the original. For instance, when a specific pattern of data is repeated 12 times, the software can remove 11 repetitions and then include a few bits that tell the decoder to repeat the single remaining instance of that pattern 12 times. These schemes typically offer about 30% compression, not the near 90% compression that MP3 or WMA compression provides. These lossless compression chemes are not typically what you are buying when you buy music online.)

    5. If you create a standard audio CD from your downloaded files the quality will not match the quality of a CD by a long shot. I am pretty tone deaf and I can definitely hear the difference in quality.

      If you buy physical CDs, you can rip the CDs to your PC in an uncompressed or lossless compression format and then you can do anything you want with it. If you need a copy of the CD, you can get original quality. If you need MP3 or WMA for a device, you can convert to the best quality MP3 or WMA possible. None of this is possible with the poor quality music available from most online music stores or from peer-to-peer downloading services.

    Creating Your own DRM

    Once you have bought your own CDs, unfortunately, there is still a way to invite the devil that is DRM into your home. Windows Media Player gives users the option of protecting their own music when they rip their own CDs.

    The question is to protect whom? From what? Or from whom? And why in the world would you want to? What's in it for you?

    Ok, I will admit that the first couple CDs I ripped I did copy protect them. I don't believe in sharing CDs, either getting copies from friends or giving copies to friends - or downloading from peer-to-peer file sharing services. So, the first CDs I ripped, I thought I would do the right thing and protect them so that if anyone ever stole my thousand plus dollar computer, they couldn't get that twenty dollars worth of music. Noble, huh?

    No, not noble; ignorant. First off, who am I protecting when I choose to protect the music I rip? Not me. In fact, I am not really even protecting the music labels or the artists. Let's be realistic here. First off, what are the chances that whoever steals my PC likes the same 60's and 70's rock that I listen to? And if they do, and if my music is all protected, they would probably have stolen my CDs when they broke in to steal the PC.

    I found out what a big mistake it was to protect those files when, a few weeks later, I reloaded Windows on my PC and found myself unable to listen to any of those tracks!

    I started ripping the tracks again with protection before the light finally came on. I wasn't going to go through this again. I stopped what I was doing and started over with no protection. The only thing I found protecting my own files was good for was to protect them from me!

    If you don't want to voluntarily surrender your fair-use rights, do two things. If you must rip your CDs as WMA files, make sure the box labeled "Copy protect music" is not checked:

    Click to view full size

    The second thing to do, even better than the first, is to rip your CDs as MP3 or WAV format files. The advantage to either, as related to DRM, is that neither format is capable of supporting DRM so there are no accidents. I have heard anecdotal reports on the Microsoft Windows Media Player newsgroups that there have been occasions where Windows Media Player has failed to play WMA files that should not have had protection. Since MP3 or WAV files can't have protection, that reduces the number of Media Player bugs that are likely to decide unprotected files are protected.

    At least use MP3 rather than WMA. Every MP3 player in the world plays MP3 format files - thus the name MP3 player. For the ultimate in compatibility, you just can't beat MP3.

    For the ultimate in quality, you just can't beat WAV. Once ripped to WAV format, you can easily convert to any format you wish with no loss of quality, whether that is MP3, AAC, WMA, or some new format yet to be invented.

    Thanks Dave: I now better understand what my problem is. Is there a way to undo the protection?

    please send response to apdc@post.com
    Data mining HAS to be at the core of all WMP's seemingly idiotic behavior; tha's why it is FREE. MS mines and employs the better developing cracs to work on their projects; therefore NONE of these viral-like Do's and Not's (And's and If's are non-existent in WMP), can be errors in its design. For instance, one does not inprove something to make it relatively worse. i.e. ver. 9 to ver. 10: entering lyrics was a sinch. try that on ver 10. Or, upgrading to ver. 10 makes you lose lyrics enter on prev. versions. One can go on enumerating wantom-like, and rougue behavior. RealPlayer is an option but it has its own demons as well; one decent feature is that it will LET you save in several formats INCLUDING .wma.
    The SOLUTION is not trying to tame either beast because their feed come from the Gods. Rather, why not create a group aiming to DEVELOP a GLOBAL PLAYER which design is USER DRIVEN? MS does not have a monopoly on intelect, nor on will. The vast disatisfaction should ensure a like ocean of talent and ideas to enbark on such noble project? Let'd do something about it! Rafael
    Hi Dale,

    This has nothing to do with this blog, but I need to contact you regarding another issue.

    You had posted some code on http://www.velocityreviews.com/forums/t123522-how-to-reduce-image-file-size.html that reduces an uploaded picture file size.

    The code works very well.
    The picture get reduced in size and I am saving it with a new filename.

    The problem is that I am trying to delete the original uploaded file and I getting an error message:

    The process cannot access the file because it is being used by another process.

    Can you help me out here?

    My email is yzidell2@hotmail.com

    I haven't posted on velocityreviews. That site, along with many others, mine the NNTP newsgroups that Microsoft used to support. They wrap the messages in their own wrappers and try to get people to sign up for their associated spam.

    The topic you are referring to was, I am sure, posted originally on Microsoft's own newsgroups.

    Luckily - at least in this one regard - Microsoft has moved to forums instead of NNTP. It probably won't help against the spam fake forums, though.

    That said, I suggest using Microsoft's newsgroups for help with your development problems. Blog comments are not the appropriate forum for it.

    Make sure you're closing your image file, and then try wrapping the delete statement in a try/catch and a loop. I set my loop to run up to 10 times before passing the error to the user but it never actually ran more than twice. Just a guess, you're probably using Vista. I ran into the same issue when I moved to Vista. The loop worked as a solution for me.
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