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.

Always give credit where credit is due!

Nina Paley, author of Sita Sings the Blues, just released another animation called “Credit is Due (The Attribution Song)”; another in a series of Minute Memes. She’s released a few of these shorter animations and they’re all informative and fun.

According to the page for this video on archive.org, this video is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license. According to the footer on QuestionCopyright.org our content is released to the public and can be considered to be in the public domain: you may copy, share, excerpt, modify, and distribute modified versions of this and other pages from QuestionCopyright.org.. It’s unclear precisely how this work is licensed to you or if this work is under copyright at all. I can only guess that you are free to share unaltered copies of the work, transcode the work in its entirety to make it playable for yourself and others, and distribute copies of the work in its entirety with some reasonable amount of attribution (the more restrictive of the two sets of permissions). Until the two pages above are in sync I cannot be sure.

Update (2011-06-30): User “camille” (whom I believe is QuestionCopyright.org’s own Camille E. Acey) replied to my post about the confusing licensing on QuestionCopyright.org’s blog post about this video. Ms. Acey said that there is no licensing confusion because it is impossible to actually *put* anything directly into the public domain unless it originates from a government agency. I believe that is untrue: I believe all American copyright holders may choose to place a copyrighted work into the Public Domain thereby forgoing all copyright power for that work. I also believe if this were not the case the many lawyers at the Creative Commons would not have worked on their public domain dedication (deprecated since 2010-10-11) and then later reworked their public domain dedication into CC0 in order to broaden the usefulness of the dedication. Given Ms. Acey’s belief about placing works into the PD, she continued our statement that everything on our site is public domain is just a stance, not a legal reality which I believe only further confuses the issue. In the interest of correcting my own misunderstanding, I asked for Ms. Acey to cite sources for her belief. She cited How can I put a work into the public domain? which says exactly nothing to defend the errant notion that it is impossible to actually *put* anything directly into the public domain unless it originates from a government agency. My latest contribution to the QuestionCopyright.org thread awaits moderation. Until corrected I maintain the licensing confusion I list above remains. A copyright reform organization should not be unclear about licensing.

Also see:

Civil liberties require software freedom

FreePress.net, a media reform organization, occasionally sends out emails and hosts feedback campaigns where they ask people to contact someone in an organization which is doing something wrong. In many situations their publicity efforts are right-minded and centered on drawing attention to policy changes that can be corrected by publicizing the wrongdoing—in 2003 the FCC said they’d listen to Americans give their views on media concentration but then FCC Chairman Michael Powell said he’d attend only one hearing in Richmond, Virginia (in order to save money on hotel rooms and airline tickets), the American public was outraged. The public understood that this issue had the potential to adversely affect most citizens (regardless of political position). A series of well-attended town hall style hearings followed but Chairman Powell was absent for most of these hearings, clearly displaying his disrespect for the public’s views. FreePress.net (which started in late 2002) had begun and helped formulate a principled message illustrating why media concentration is bad news for everyone but the media conglomerates consolidating their power.

FreePress.net’s most recent campaign targets Apple Computers’ Steve Jobs, calling him out for Apple’s control over iPhone cameras and a related process Apple seeks to patent. FreePress.net’s campaign letter begins “Apple wants to control the camera on your phone.” and goes on:

The maker of the iPhone wants to patent a sensor that would detect when people are using their phone cameras to do things like film concerts — and give corporations the power to shut them down.

This is a compound statement and therefore less than clear; there are two issues bundled together here, both of which a tech-savvy organization should oppose.
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Blender Institute videos are well worth paying for

I have been an avid supporter of the Blender Institute videos for a long time (as you can see from many posts to this blog). One reason is they treat their users well: works are licensed to share (Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license). I encourage you to purchase the videos, share, and enjoy!

For all of the videos: Everything else (video tutorials, HTML, and so on) Blender Foundation | www.blender.org

Tell the FSF how you think they are doing!

Free Software Foundation’s new executive director John Sullivan wants you to give him your feedback and criticism. Specifically, he wants to know:

By what measures do you judge the success of the FSF’s public advocacy campaigns, and how do you think they have been doing?

As he says, “it’s all fair game. Please share your thoughts, impressions, and criticisms with me at <johns@fsf.org>”.

Update 2011-05-06: John Sullivan reiterated his invitation to tell him what you think the FSF should do noting he’ll be starting a closer read of the letters I’ve received so far and that about 75 of you have responded so far, which should keep me busy for a while. But I would love to have more. Thanks!.

Why let someone else choose what you’re allowed to read?

In 2009, Amazon.com took away copies of purchased electronic books sold through Amazon’s “Kindle” book service. Amazon.com’s embarrassment at being caught was widely disseminated in the mainstream press and Jeff Bezos, head of Amazon, wrote apologetically about the incident.

In December 2010, Selena Kitt, erotic fiction author, told us Amazon did it again:

On December 9, 2010, I was contacted by CreateSpace (Amazon’s Print on Demand service) who publishes my print books. They informed me that my title, Back to the Garden, had been removed for violating their “content guidelines.” When I consulted their guidelines I found them so vague as to be useless””were they saying my content was illegal? Public domain? Stolen? Offensive? (All of these were on the list). When I inquired as to the specifics of the violation, they were not forthcoming, and sent a form letter response stating that Amazon “may, in its sole discretion, at any time, refuse to list or distribute any content that it deems inappropriate.”

On Sunday, December 12, the print title that had been removed had now disappeared from the Kindle store, as well as two of my other titles, Naughty Bits and Under Mr. Nolan’s Bed. I have over fifty titles selling on Amazon, all of them in erotic fiction categories. The only thing these three singled-out titles had in common, besides being written by me””they were all erotic incest fantasy fiction.

Selena Kitt

(I didn’t link Kitt’s book titles to Barnes & Noble as Kitt did because Barnes & Noble sells another proprietary-driven eBook reader called the “Nook”. Since the Nook runs proprietary software, it too can be controlled by someone other than the owner. Therefore switching from Amazon’s proprietary device to Barnes & Noble’s proprietary device is merely jumping between masters. What’s called for is switching to freedom, even if that means doing without an eBook reader.)

Kitt says other erotic fiction authors experienced the same thing she did. But Amazon hadn’t just taken the eBooks from their virtual shelves; that would be merely unfortunate for the authors looking to sell copies of their texts. Amazon had removed the copies already sold to Kindle customers…again!

When some of my readers began checking their Kindle archives for books of mine they’d purchased on Amazon, they found them missing from their archives. When one reader called to get a refund for the book she no longer had access to, she was chastised by the Amazon customer service representative about the “severity” of the book she’d chosen to purchase.

So, how much is it worth to you to have the freedom to read what you want, retain full control of whatever reading device you own where only you decide what is on that device, and retain what you get even if your reading choices no longer comport with a businesses idea of appropriateness? You wouldn’t let someone take books off of your bookshelf, why let publishers or vendors remove eBooks from your reading device?

This is not really about Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or the Swindle and Nook reading devices; sure, this unquestionably justifies not doing business with proprietary software vendors including Amazon and Barnes & Noble. DRM stories are primarily about your freedom. Every DRM story is really about why you should value your freedoms to read, copy, build upon, and retain works.

Arduino: The Documentary

An informative new documentary is out about Arduino, “an open-source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software” (source: arduino.cc). You can find all sorts of free software to use with your Arduino board so you can make a lot of interesting devices: robots that crawl, 3-D printers to make other real-world objects, blinking light controllers, and tons of other things. Your imagination is really the limit of what you can do with Arduino.

Arduino comes with inseparable freedoms because Arduino’s environment is built to give you the freedom to explore whatever you want: Arduino software is licensed to share and modify under the GNU General Public License and this software has been ported to run on any operating system, Arduino’s getting-started documentation is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License so share and alter that to your taste too (so long as you pass on the freedoms you got), and the Arduino Uno board works with any computer that has USB (which is virtually every computer you’ll use). You are empowered to do all sorts of interesting things with Arduino, as participants in the documentary attest to.


Apple infringing copyright…again


In May 2010 Apple distributed copies of a computer version of the classic board game Go through its App Store. This GNU Go variant is licensed under the GNU General Public License version 2 (GNU GPL) which does not allow additional restrictions to be added to the license. Apple’s App Store imposes additional restrictions on the applications distributed through the App Store, restrictions which are incompatible with the GNU GPL. Hence the incompatibility Apple introduced when it drafted the rules for its App Store.

Apple reviews every program it distributes through its App Store so Apple knowingly distributed this Go program in violation of the GNU GPL. This constitutes copyright infringement.

Apple has all the permission they need to distribute GPLed software through their App Store. The GPL ensures this; Apple could even distribute GPLed programs commercially charging users for downloading copies of GPLed programs.

The Free Software Foundation, GNU Go’s copyright holder, pointed this out to Apple in their usual way aiming for compliance not litigation:

In most ways, this is a typical enforcement action for the FSF: we want to resolve this situation as amicably as possible. We have not sued Apple, nor have we sent them any legal demand that they remove the programs from the App Store. The upstream developers for this port are also violating the GPL, and we are discussing this with them too. We are raising the issue with Apple as well since Apple is the one that distributes this software to the public; legally, both parties have the responsibility to comply with the GPL.

The only thing we’re doing differently is making this announcement. Apple has a proven track record of blocking or disappearing programs from the App Store without explanation. So we want to provide everyone with these details about the case before that happens, and prevent any wild speculation.

Free Software Foundation’s License Compliance Engineer Brett Smith

Instead of changing the App Store rules to get themselves into compliance with the GPL, Apple decided to stop distributing GNU Go. This choice deprived Apple’s users of GNU Go.

The latest chapter: VLC

Now Apple is at it again: this time with VideoLAN Client (VLC)—a versatile media player one can use to watch all sorts of movies. VLC is quite famous in free software because it is so easy to use and because it plays so many different media formats.

Someone made a version of VLC for Apple’s iOS (the operating system Apple ships on the Apple iPad). The programmers submitted their variant of VLC to Apple’s App Store and Apple chose to distribute the program. Apple never changed the conditions which prohibit them from distributing GPL-covered programs, so they are again infringing the copyright of a free software developer.

This time one of the VLC copyright holders, Rémi Denis-Courmont who is also one of VLC’s primary developers, complained to Apple:

VLC media player is free software licensed solely under the terms of the… GNU General Public License (a.k.a. GPL). Those terms are contradicted by the products usage rules of the AppStore through which Apple delivers applications to users of its mobile devices.Rémi Denis-Courmont

and the FSF concurs:

The GPL gives Apple permission to distribute this software through the App Store. All they would have to do is follow the license’s conditions to help keep the software free. Instead, Apple has decided that they prefer to impose Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) and proprietary legal terms on all programs in the App Store, and they’d rather kick out GPLed software than change their own rules. Their obstinance prevents you from having this great software on Apple devices””not the GPL or the people enforcing it.

Apple continues to use more DRM in their products: they just announced that a Mac App Store will be coming soon to their laptops and desktops, and you can bet it will have the same draconian restrictions as today’s App Store. Meanwhile, people enforcing the GPL like Rémi are fighting against DRM, so that everyone can be in full control of their own computers. We’re thankful to him for taking a stand. If you want to show your support, too, it’s easy: just steer clear of Apple’s DRM-infested App Store.

Free Software Foundation’s License Compliance Engineer Brett Smith

Anyone failing to comply with programmers who license their work to freely share and modify comes off looking very bad because they step on the efforts of people who are trying to treat people nicely. Therefore Apple comes off looking very bad every time they deny their users free software for non-compliance with copyright.

Update (2010-11-23): Brett Smith posted FSF analysis of Apple’s terms and conditions to the VLC-devel mailing list (local copy). Karen Sandler and Bradley Kuhn also go into this issue on their show “Free as in Freedom” (Ogg Vorbis recording, local copy). As I pointed out elsewhere, Apple’s changed terms and conditions still don’t allow them to distribute GPL’d works; Apple is still disallowing themselves from distributing GPL’d works.

Update (2011-01-07): Rémi Denis-Courmont writes to Planet VideoLAN:

At last, Apple has removed VLC media player from its application store. Thus the incompatibility between the GNU General Public License and the AppStore terms of use is resolved – the hard way. I am not going to pity the owners of iDevices, and not even the MobileVLC developers who doubtless wasted a lot of their time. This end should not have come to a surprise to anyone.

GNU Telephony has their aim set the right way

The GNU Telephony project is a software project for using computers as telephones. By now this isn’t new but it is important as few other telephony projects are based in code we are all free to share and modify.

This project is also important because its politics are in the right place. Recently the US government announced intention to compel American software developers to introduce a means for investigators to get access to all communications—known as “back doors”. This pursuit specifically includes allowing the government to break encryption and allow peer-to-peer services to be intercepted by the government. Such a request defies the entire purpose of speaking freely in a manner which is technologically difficult for others to spy on. David Alexander Sugar, head of GNU Telephony, had this to say in response

Good morning my relations. Today is not such a great day. In the United States the Obama administration is actively seeking a new law to legally mandate the forced introduction of insecure back doors and support for mass surveillance into all communication systems. Specifically targeted are Internet VoIP and messaging systems.

Speaking on behalf of the GNU Telephony project, we do intend to openly defy such a law should it actually come to pass, so I want to be very clear on this statement. It is not simply that we will choose to publicly defy the imposition of such an illegitimate law, but that we will explicitly continue to publicly develop and distribute free software (that is software that offers the freedom to use, inspect, and modify) enabling secure peer-to-peer communication privacy through encryption that is made available directly to anyone worldwide. Clearly such software is especially needed in those places, such as in the United States, where basic human freedoms and dignity seem most threatened.

You’ll no doubt want to read the rest of Sugar’s post. It is well worth your time. Our privacy isn’t just convenient, privacy is critical to the proper functioning of a civilized society.