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Last Updated: Friday, 16 March 2007, 15:49 GMT
Digital lock's rights and wrongs
Spencer Kelly
By Spencer Kelly
Click presenter


In the 80s, according to record companies, home taping was killing music. Fast forward some 20 years and the devices we use to listen to music may have changed, but the recording industry is still claiming that the illegal copying of their product harms future production.

When a piece of music is purchased you might assume you can listen to it in on any number of different devices: at home, in the car or on a portable music player. But, in the UK at least, you would be wrong.

"You can't copy any form of music or film without the copyright owner's consent," explained copyright lawyer Hamish Porter.

MP3 is fine, but what is not fine is taking artists' work and then swapping it with a large number of people over the internet for free
Richard Gooch

"So if you buy a CD from a record shop, even copying that CD onto your iPod is unlawful unless you have the copyright owner's consent."

In practice, stopping consumers making CD backups has proved impossible to enforce. But our habits are changing; around 10% of purchased music is now downloaded. This raises different issues.

It may have the effect of popularising music and leading to more sales
Becky Hogge
Open Rights Group

"When you download an electronic copy of a musical work or a film from a website," said Mr Porter, "the copyright owner, as part of the contract under which you have downloaded it, has allowed you to copy that file onto a laptop or an iPod or onto a hard disc.

The problem, some believe, is that the music labels have made these contracts pretty restrictive by using something called Digital Rights Management (DRM).


David Roundtree, the drummer with Blur told us: "The idea is that DRM is supposed to allow you to control the copying of your music.

"That's the point of it all. You're supposed to be able to sell something to somebody and restrict what they do with it after that."

CD on tray
Most digital music is ripped directly from CDs

Software is embedded in downloaded music, restricting which devices it can be used with and how many copies can be made.

Many in the recording industry claim DRM is necessary to fight music piracy.

"The problem that we really face at the moment is unfettered filesharing, free copying of MP3s," explained Richard Gooch from the International Federation of Phonographic Industry which represents all the major record labels.

"MP3 is fine, but what is not fine is taking artists' work and then swapping it with a large number of people over the internet for free."

DRM is the solution, the music industry says.

But Simon Wheeler, the Director of Digital Beggars Banquet Records, disagrees.

"DRM can allow copyright holders to protect their intellectual property but considering that over 90% of the music sold in the music market today is on a non-DRM format called the CD, then that's not necessarily an answer."

David Roundtree also has misgivings: "I think the fundamental problem with it is that it doesn't work. If it did work we would be having a rather different conversation.

"It's best summed up by the old computer security maxim: whatever you can do in software, you can undo in software. In the case of music, whatever complicated system you have in place, the music has to come out of two wires that you have plugged into a loud speaker.

"I can just as easily plug those into a recording device as a loud speaker, so the whole concept is fundamentally flawed."


There are two main kinds of DRM. One is based on Microsoft code and is used by most of the major download services.

But the one store which dominates the market, Apple's iTunes, uses a completely different and incompatible DRM system called FairPlay.

I believe that if music was sold without DRM there would be less confusion for the consumer
Simon Wheeler, Beggars Banquet

FairPlay allows music downloaded from the iTunes store to be played on computers running iTunes that have been authorised by the consumer and only one portable device, iPods.

Users can copy downloaded songs to a CD and then copy the disc back on to the computer so that the songs can then be moved to other portable devices - but the quality of the music is affected.

"I think the problem that we've got with DRM at the moment is the most popular music player on the market, the iPod," said Mr Wheeler.

"If you buy digital music outside of iTunes or an MP3 based service then you're not going to be able to put the music on your iPod. I think that confuses consumers more than anything else."

The fight back against DRM has already begun. In Europe, Apple's system is under fire for being anti-competitive and is facing legal action in various European countries.

Consumers are also making their voices heard through various organisations which oppose DRM, which they term Digital Restrictions Management.

While the major labels are still largely behind DRM, the independent sector prefers a different approach. Sites like E-Music and Audio Lunchbox sell DRM-free tracks, all of which come from Indie labels.

"I believe that if music was sold without DRM there would be less confusion for the consumer," said Mr Wheeler. "They wouldn't have to worry whether the track they brought from service X would play on player Y."

"They could buy with confidence knowing that they could take their music with them on whatever portable device they wanted.

"I think this growth in confidence for the consumers would lead to market growth and I think that's a real benefit for the industry."

DRM-free or otherwise, at least some more imaginative approaches to music services have been appearing. Spiralfrog promises ad-supported downloads - when or if it eventually launches.

Aime Street has launched. Here, the price of each track is decided by its popularity. Less popular or new tracks are free, rising to a maximum of 98 cents if their popularity increases. At the moment it deals almost exclusively in independent music.

Q&A: What is DRM?
07 Feb 07 |  Technology
Digital music: Industry answers
24 Jan 06 |  Entertainment

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