DRM: A Dream Or A Nightmare

October 8, 2005

Entertainment, Music, Technology

The summer of 1997 was wonderful. School was out and the kids were enjoying the great weather. I was leading a youth Sunday School class. One of the kids told me about a band called Switchfoot and their first album (The Legend of Chin). The band was (and is) a San Diego band that sang about God as easily as they sang about bright summer days. The name of the band comes from a surfing term about folks who could lead with their left as well as their right foot. And man, they could belt out a tune. Their message was glorious and made your heart dance as much as your toes. And the lyrics would make you think about your relationship to the world as well as your relationship to Christ.

Well, I’ve loved Switchfoot for eight years now. I remember going on a business trip and buying their second album (New Way to be Human). Rather than mess arond and chit-chat with my business associates, I sat in my hotel room that night and just listened to the music wash over me. Wow. These guys could transport you to another place and time.

So with years of listening, I couldn’t wait until their latest album came out. When my son gave me a free coupon for an iTunes song, I used it to purchase the pre-release version of Stars (the first single from the album). The song is wonderful. And it just got me more excited about the upcoming album.

But when the album was released, I was busy on a few other things. So I didn’t get around to buying the album until this week. I hadn’t read any of the press about the album. Nevertheless, I bought the album (sight unseen) on Thursday night. I couldn’t wait to get home and load the album into iTunes so I could listen to the album on my iPod. Well, I was in for a shock.

I didn’t get a chance to load it at home yesterday, so I thought I’d just listen to the album on my laptop. I loaded in the CD. And, presto – I was greeted with silence. Then the autorun feature kicked in and a special player was loaded. I listened to a couple of tracks. And they were quite good. But I wanted to load the album into my normal player. Unfortunately, I couldn’t even see the CD icon as I launched iTunes. What was going on???

I popped open my shiny new Firefox 1.5 Beta 2 browser and started to browse about the new album. And I was deluged by all of the news articles about the album – and its DRM scheme. I found out that by allowing the autorun feature to start, I had installed some pretty awful DRM tools. I couldn’t even use my trusty old CD ripping tools (like CDex) w/o incurring read erros and getting horrible buzz/static on anything I ripped. Yuck. This was worse than spyware. Sony/BMG had installed software on my system that impaired my ability to legally use my own system. Heck, it seemed like I was being punished for buying the CD.

Strangely enough, the bassist and co-founder of Switchfoot (Tim Foreman) had posted an article about how to defeat the DRM utilities. Why would he do this? It turns out that so many people called and complained that the DRM tools precluded them from loading the newest album onto their iPod – just like me. So Tim put together a short primer on how to take your legally acquired album and rip it into a format that could then be loaded into iTunes (and onto an iPod). The procedure he outlined was fairly familiar. Basically, he referenced a tool (CDex) that could rip the CDDA audio track into a WAV file. And then you could convert the WAV to MP3 (or WMA or AAC or whatever you wanted).

Well, I fired up CDex and ripped the audio tracks to WAV files. I then used iTunes to convert these into MP3 files. Of course, I had to spend the time to tag the files. I use MP3Tag to manage ID3 tags on my MP3 files. Then I had to grab the album art and load it into iTunes. For this, I use the iTunes Art Importer.

So after a couple of hours of work, I finally have Nothing Is Sound loaded into iTunes (and onto my iPod). I should have been at this point in a couple of minutes – not a couple of hours. This is a travesty. I bought this album. And I will continue to buy the albums that I listen to. Nevertheless, the only thing that this particular piece of DRM will do is drive people towards alternate means of acquiring their music.

Many people will move to online purchase and download. In fact, I could have bought the album from ITMS and it would have been cheaper – and a whole lot easier. But some folks won’t be troubled with buying the music. Unfortunately, some folks will just get online and illicitly download the tracks. In the end, I think Sony/BMG may have pushed more folks towards piracy – just so they can hear the music from a band they love. And this piracy has forced a fine musician (Tim Foreman) into advising his listeners/fans on ways to defeat the DRM scheme imposed by his label. This is nuts. And the greatest irony is that this band is a Christian band. Their fans are the folks least likely to be stealing music.

In summary…

The Good

  • The album is great. I love almost every track. As usual, Switchfoot is showing great musicianship and great lyrical ability. Just like I expect from Switchfoot. These guys make you think about your faith and its practical application in the world.
  • I sure am glad that the Internet has so many good resources on how to fairly use the music that you have purchased. I have been able to solve this problem as well as several others. For exaqmple, I once bought a song from ITMS and wanted to use it in a video. To do this, I had to strip the DRM atoms from off of the AAC files downloaded by ITMS. I was able to find good tools that would solve my problem.
  • This album has made me think about how I use music on the web. It is a good reminder that we (Christ’s followers) need to be “salt and light” in the world. Each time I download a “back catalog” track to sample it, I will be forced to think about fair use and WWJD. Thank goodness for the Podsafe Music Network.
  • Tim Foreman really cares about his fans. He risked a lot by posting steps to defeat the DRM on his own album. I don’t know if what he did was right. After all, he willingly put himself under the authority of Sony/BMG. So to summarily disregard their instructions/desires must have been quite a struggle. Tim, may God give you a peace about everything you are doing. Your heart is in the right place. You are looking out for those who need to hear the message God has given you. When Keith Green got to this point, he created his own label and started to give away his music to those who could not afford the albums.

The Bad

  • Sony really needs to rethink their DRM strategy. This scheme is going to make folks flock away from corporate music monopolies. Apple is making it easier. Too bad the labels are starting to get upset with Apple. In the end, the labels are shooting themselves in the foot (or higher).
  • I hope that this particular problem won’t hurt the sales of this album. It is an excellent follow-on to The Beautiful Letdown.

The Ugly

  • We need to find a way of stemming copyright theft. And we need to find a way of ensuring that fair use is also promoted and supported. It is ugly that the two goals seem to be in conflict with one another.




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