Puretracks, unlocked MP3s and Apple's iTunes

by Saleem Khan, CBC News Online

Confusion over Puretracks' new MP3 collection — which is free of anti-copying measures — just got a little less confusing. The workaround for users of the Firefox Web browser that saw MP3 tracks they downloaded misnamed as Windows Media ".wma" files has been fixed. Meanwhile, the attention around the online music store's growing pains has once again focused attention on digital rights management (DRM) software.

DRM, the grab-bag term for the digital locks that often fetter software and particularly music, was the focus of Apple CEO Steve Jobs' open letter on DRM and music, in which he wrote that he would make all tracks in the iTunes store DRM-free if the recording industry let him.

At least one digital rights activist isn't buying it. In an essay for Salon.com, Toronto-born Boing Boing editor Cory Doctorow argues that Jobs probably prefers DRM because it locks iTunes users into the Apple technology ecosystem, which means they have to keep coming back for more — and pay for the privilege.

Jobs' DRM stance has historically been all over the map. He's defended and decried DRM and consumer rights depending on which way the wind blows, and the spirit moves him. There was the "Rip, Mix, Burn" campaign, when Apple celebrated the idea that you could take DRM-free music off of CDs and load it onto your iPod (if you want to do the same thing with a DRM'ed DVD, you're an outlaw). Back in 2002, he went on the record with this gem: "If you legally acquire music, you need to have the right to manage it on all other devices that you own." But later, an Apple attorney told a tech conference that Apple would keep its DRM even if the labels asked to have it removed. And when Real announced that it had put a Real DRM player on Apple's iPod so that you could listen to its DRM music on Apple's player, Apple responded with legal threats.

Doctorow also paints a clear picture of the actual — rather than purported — utility of DRM:

The dream of a copy-proof song or movie is a logical absurdity. DRM systems — built over a span of years at a cost of millions — are routinely cracked in an afternoon by bored teenagers. BigChampagne, the P2P (peer-to-peer) monitoring service, reports that it takes a mere 180 seconds for a DRM'ed song released on the iTunes Store to show up as a free P2P download. Anyone who thinks that companies are going to make bits get harder to copy in the future is either not paying attention or kidding himself.

Doctorow outlines the problems with DRM and some of the recent history in the text, which is well worth reading if you buy or listen to digital music, or know anyone who does.