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DRM, vinyl, and the future

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This blog post is over 13 years old. It's possible that the information you read below isn't current and the links no longer work.

At Startup Camp Enric played some Bob Dylan MP3s for me. Turns out he had started the process of converting all his old vinyl to mp3s. The quality was fantastic, which was surprising given that it came from 25 year old LPs played on a consumer-grade turntable and recorded by running a cable from the headphone jack of the stereo to the mic in jack on his laptop. He hadn’t listed to his vinyl in years—he even had to go buy a needle for his turntable so he could do this conversion.

Twenty-five years ago, no one could have foreseen digital music like this. The idea that you’d be able to fit thousands of songs on a device the size of a deck of cards would have amazed the people creating and selling music. But because that music was stored in an open format, anyone with a record player can still use it. You don’t need a particular brand of record player. You don’t need complicated tools. Enric didn’t need to use the same record player he owned when he bought the music. He could pick up any turntable and play the record. It doesn’t matter if the LP’s publisher is still in business.

Enric has the freedom to listen to the music that he purchased in any way he wants, on any equipment he wants, any time he wants, as often as he wants.

Much of the music sold today doesn’t have these same freedoms. With DRM, music you buy today might not be playable a year from now, never mind 25 years from now. If the technology that was used to encrypt a DRM file is no longer available, you won’t be able to play it. This can happen if the company behind the DRM goes out of business, or even if the company just changes their DRM scheme. Music bought with Microsoft’s PlayForSure technology can’t be played on Microsoft’s new Zune media player—Microsoft changed to a new DRM system. Your media is now obsolete as soon as the player is. You can’t buy music from the iTunes store and play it on your Linux computer, your Zune, or your non-Apple music player.

The publisher of your media now chooses how and when you can use it. That choice has been removed from your hands.

Most people think that because they’re not planning on pirating music and movies that DRM doesn’t effect them. Of course, 25 years from now when they want to convert their iTunes music to the popular format of the day, they’ll be out of luck, because that’s not how Apple wants them to use their music.

For more on how DRM is harmful, read the excellent summary Top 10 Arguments Against DRM.

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