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Last Updated: Monday, 1 October 2007, 12:32 GMT 13:32 UK
The obstacles in a DRM-free world
In the global market online sales shouldn't be limited to one country, argues columnist Bill Thompson.

Amazon's service was launched recently

The restrictions placed on downloaded music files using one of the various digital rights managements (DRM) systems have always annoyed me.

I'll generally buy a CD and rip it as a high-quality AAC file rather than pay out for a song I can only play on selected devices or copy a few times.

Existing DRM-free services like eMusic, or those with some non-DRM inventory like MusicNet and of course Apple, are out there but don't cover a lot of the artists I like and have nothing like the inventory you'd find in a decent record shop.

And I know that you can take the songs you buy from the iTunes Music Store and burn them to CD and then re-import them, but doing so further reduces the quality of the music you're listening, especially when compared to a CD. It also takes time.

Buying music on subscription is a dangerous habit, as customers of Virgin Music found out recently when they were told that their song collections would become unplayable once the store stops operating.

Locked song

Anyone who had purchased a locked video from Google's Video Store had the same experience earlier in the year, and others will certainly follow.

Even the rights you think you have can be taken away if a song is locked using DRM.

Who is to say that Apple, in their infinite wisdom, won't decide that you can't burn their Fairplay protected files to CD any more? After all, they have already reduced the number of times you can burn a particular playlist once, so they have a track record in changing terms and conditions.

Bill Thompson
News that Amazon was to launch a music download service was therefore well-received in my household
Bill Thompson

My son, less willing to defer his gratification, does buy some songs directly from iTunes, and I've already had to cope with the hassle of moving his song library from his old PC to his new Mac Mini.

Windows DRM is just as bad, creating obstacles to copying files or playing them on different devices or computers, and generally getting in the way of the experience.

So I prefer CDs. And of course if I have a CD, complete with cover image, sleeve notes and any extras, then I can always re-rip it if my files get inadvertently deleted.

News that Amazon was to launch a music download service was therefore well-received in my household, even it is only a beta service with a relatively small catalogue. It promised a competitively-priced music - especially at the current pound/dollar exchange rate - and best of all the songs were in MP3 format with no DRM.

I have an Amazon.com user account as well as one at Amazon.co.uk, partly because a lot of my favourite writers, like Louise Erdrich and Joan Didion, get published there early and partly because four or five years ago Region 1 DVDs of children's movies like Pokemon and Toy Story appeared a lot earlier than the European versions.

Multi-region player

I've got a multi-region player, and my son - the same one now listening to Korn at full volume - loved them both.

The new store is easy to find from the home page, so I decided to buy Amy Winehouse's Back to Black for $8.99.

I installed the Amazon MP Downloader, noting with interest that there were Mac and Windows versions available from the start, but nothing for Linux.

The downloader simplifies the process of getting a whole album's worth of songs and adding them to your existing music library, whether you're using Windows Media Player or iTunes. Reports are that it isn't as seamless as buying from iTunes, but that the convenience of having unencumbered song makes it worthwhile.

Man with two iPods
MP3 files will play on every digital music player

Unfortunately I only have reports to go on, because when I tried to buy my chosen music I was asked for address details for my credit card, even though I have one on file with the store.

And then I found that I could only proceed if I had a US address, and had to abandon the attempt.

I'm disappointed, and annoyed. This is a store which happily sends me DVDs that are region-encoded for the United States and Canada only.

It will even ship me books from publishers who are not authorised to sell in the UK under the contracts made with authors and agents.

Yet it seems that the record companies are able to exert a level of control over mere bits that not even the largest film company can manage over physical DVDs, and Amazon has accepted the constraints.

I could get round it by asking one of my US-based friends to front for me and use their credit card.

And even if Amazon is using some sort of geo-location technology to stop non-US downloads it would be as easy to get around by faking my IP address as it is to persuade the BBC's iPlayer that you're safely in Surrey no matter where you actually are.

But that isn't the point.

Amazon is a phenomenally successful retailer and it understands customer service better than almost any company I have encountered.

Last week my friend John didn't get the copy of Halo 3 he had ordered, so called them to ask what was going on. Not only did they phone him back when they promised to do so, they sorted the problem within minutes and sent him e-mails to confirm the situation.

If anyone can take the record companies and the current online music retailers and show them how it should be done then it is Amazon.

But if the record companies continue to push their old-world business practices, insisting on territorial limits and other restrictions, then even Amazon will find it impossible to save the music industry from the implosion which lies ahead.

Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.

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