Wal-Mart closes their DRM-riddled music store: paying for temporary music?

Ars Technica reports that on August 28, 2011 Wal-Mart will close its online music store where Wal-Mart sold many DRM-encumbered music tracks.

DRM is properly defined as “Digital Restrictions Management” because of its effect on the user, as you’ll see. Publishers like to defend the notion of restricting how users use digital media so they define the acronym as “Digital Rights Management” emphasizing their power over the user as their right.

In 2004 Wal-Mart started selling music tracks encumbered with DRM. Thus any of these tracks are unplayable without using a special proprietary player program that communicates with a Wal-Mart DRM server; the player program essentially asks the DRM server ‘is it okay for this user to play this track now?’ and the server either responds ‘yes’ (and the player plays the media) or ‘no’ (and the player doesn’t play the media). Ostensibly if there is no response at all, that is treated as a ‘no’. This keeps the user dependent on Wal-Mart for playing the tracks they purchased and allows Wal-Mart to closely track who plays what when.

So one might wonder what will happen when Wal-Mart shuts down its DRM servers? Unless Wal-Mart publishes a means to free the music from the DRM, their earliest music customers will have purchased something they can no longer play; music purchases were effectively highly-supervised rentals.

It’s reasonable to expect a CD to play years after purchase. Many people have CDs older than 2004 which still work. One should expect no different from any other digital media. But thanks to a freedom-robbing scheme designed to track and restrict the user’s activity, this won’t be true for Wal-Mart’s earliest digital music shoppers.


There should be consumer protection legislation making it illegal to publish DRM-encumbered media without providing a means for everyone to break the DRM. It should not matter if you were the original purchaser or not.

Wal-Mart’s DRM story is just another in a long and growing line of stories about DRM where the general public are harmed in the end (1, 2, 3, and more).

Your investment and use of in the media is more important than any DRM-supporting publisher will tell you. DRM schemes rely on proprietary software: if DRM enforcement programs were instead written to respect your freedoms to share and modify the program, thus revealing to programmers how the DRM scheme worked, programmers could figure out how to break the scheme and release a program that all users could use to free their encumbered media. Then the DRM scheme wouldn’t restrict the users. Your privacy and computer security are at risk when you use proprietary software because you can’t determine everything that the program will do (even if you get a skilled programmer to work on your behalf). This means you can’t tell if the program is monitoring your keystrokes and mouse clicks, or sending a image of what’s on your screen to another computer over the network thus allowing someone to monitor what’s on your screen.

Your first sale right, which allows you to resell the tracks, is at risk because DRM restricts your ability to exercise first sale right. DRM schemes require the DRM owner to release the track to someone else, therefore you cannot effectively resell the tracks without DRM owner cooperation. What if the DRM owner doesn’t want you to resell the tracks at all? What if resale is only allowed to a particular person or at a particular time?

Never get involved with DRMed media. To protect your own interests, you should avoid any media with copy-prevention schemes you personally cannot crack.