The naive hail DRM as a success, wise users like keeping their rights.

Apple released a new version of their proprietary music player iTunes. iTunes is both a music player program and a music download service. Apparently this new version can make your purchased iTunes music vanish and only the administrators at Apple can restore what you lost if you made no backups of your own. When you buy iTunes tracks (like with so many other online music services) you are buying patent-encumbered, lossy, DRMed audio tracks you can often get less expensively and with more rights elsewhere by purchasing physical CD media instead. Wil Wheaton tries to convince you that Apple’s iTunes is a good thing and you should be heartened to know Apple treated him so well. He wraps up with a bit of namecalling to dissuade dissenters.

Wheaton, probably best known for his role as Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation, had purchased a lot of music through the iTunes music service. He lost “his” music upon “upgrading” to the latest iTunes program. He contacted Apple and they restored the music he had already paid for:

I think that’s worth mentioning again, in hey-look-at-me bold text: If you make a purchase from the iTunes Music Store, and something horrible happens and you lose all your music, Apple will give you a one-time only do-over to replace all of your purchased music, free of charge.

Only once?

Wheaton says that Apple’s actions “seemed excessive to me, and way above what would be reasonably expected” instead of seeing this as the least any online media store could do for their users, and one small benefit to help overcome the tremendous loss of user’s rights. He follows this up with an apology to the proprietor and a reference to where stories like this are almost never viewed in terms of user’s rights and weighing the value of those rights (users are fooled into giving up their rights for convenience).

Wheaton tries set up (what he believes to be) the corollary with physical unencumbered media:

Can you imagine walking into a record store and telling them, “Hey, guys, I lost all my CDs over the weekend. I know it’s my fault, but . . . can I have some new ones?”

Upgrading to the latest release of the proprietor’s software should not be considered the user’s fault; after all, the user is just doing what the proprietor recommends (and in some cases, depending on the DRM involved, what the proprietor requires) in order to continue to play the media the user already has paid for. That’s one of the traps of DRM—the proprietor gets to control the terms well after the sale and in perpetuity. At least on paper, copyright expires, but DRM never expires. You had better hope that the DRM isn’t that strong and that the proprietor never goes out of business, leaving you with music you can never really free from their grasp.

Wheaton says this is not his first time dealing with Apple on an iTunes issue:

Though the company was unresponsive last time I contacted them about an iTunes Music Store purchase issue…

He doesn’t go into further details about what happened then.

So what about that corollary he claims, and why the scare quotes around “his” in “‘his’ music”?

Taking a look at garden-variety physical audio CDs (also known as “red book CDs” because the standard describing the format had a red cover) more closely: I wouldn’t need to take the steps he took to reclaim my music, nor would I need to go through the hassle iTunes users have to go through to gain the rights I have with audio CDs.

With audio CDs

  • I can make backups that will play anywhere, regardless of the publisher’s intentions. This is where red book CDs pays off: Thanks to publishing the standard anyone can read that standard and understand how CDs work, and many people have already done this.
  • I can lend or borrow CDs.
  • I can easily put copies of the music I purchased into various electronic music boxes (an activity that is becoming increasingly easy for even non-technical users thanks to new dedicated digital music gadgets), even boxes not owned or controlled by the proprietor.
  • I’m left with unencumbered unscrambled audio the whole time. I don’t need to overcome some scheme meant to keep me from the audio.
  • I enjoy rights that iTunes users have demonstrated are hard or impossible to enjoy such as the right of first sale (selling CDs at a yard sale or to a used CD vendor) and loaning CDs to friends. The EFF warns us that with DRM-laden online music services the Customer is Always Wrong.
  • I enjoy higher-quality copies of the audio; so-called “lossy” compressed tracks (like MP3, Ogg Vorbis, m4p, etc.) sacrifice audio quality for file size. The smaller the file, the more tracks you can fit on an audio player, but the worse sounding each track is. I can choose how much of a size/quality tradeoff I’m willing to make.

There are also weaker arguments which still work out in my favor

  • I enjoy a wider selection of music.
  • I might be able to pay less per track with the catch that I have to buy all dozen or so tracks.

DRM (digital restrictions management) is a means by which Apple can change the effective terms under which their customers are allowed to use iTunes tracks. And they can do this even after the sale. In fact, they’ve already changed the terms after the sale when they changed the iTunes software to reduce the number of computers with which users can share iTunes tracks. Most users didn’t notice the switch before, most users didn’t notice the implications of this switch, and most users don’t read the fine print on the license to learn what other changes Apple reserves the power to make ad hoc. A naive belief in the free market says that no proprietor would do anything so drastically harmful and noticeable because then users would notice and reject the restriction. History says that such restrictions go on with proprietary software all the time and users have still made some proprietors very wealthy and popular.

Contrary to what Wheaton claims, DRM is not about making sure artists are paid. Musicians have long not been paid because of the system set in place to virtually guarantee musicians go into debt. DRM doesn’t change that. DRM isn’t intended to change that. And DRM won’t change that later on. And this is not a backup issue, as Wheaton claims, because with DRM-encumbered media, backups will only play where the proprietor approves them to play. You need to get rid of the DRM (iTunes, Windows Media) so that you can play the media anywhere and anytime you want. Also, Wheaton conflates copyright infringement with “stealing” which is making an appeal to authority (the law) and then misrepresenting what that authority says as well as ignoring the ethics of prohibiting sharing.

So in look-at-me bold print, if I had lost my audio from my music player, I wouldn’t need a proprietor to pull my iron out of the fire for me because I have rights which let me help myself, treat my friends like friends, possibly cost me less per track, and don’t leave me in a position where I beg a proprietor for help on technical issues.