Growing pains overshadow Puretracks MP3 service

Puretracks said Thursday that, despite complaints to the contrary, the company's online store is offering songs that aren't locked by anti-copying measures — but with certain limitations.

Puretracks said Thursday that, despite complaints to the contrary, the company's online store is offering songs that aren't locked by anti-copying measures— but with certain limitations.

On Tuesday, the privately held Canadian company said it was the first large online store in North America to offer music in the MP3 file format without digital rights management (DRM) — measuresused to restrict the ability to copy or transfer music or movie files such as those bought from sites like Apple Inc.'s iTunes Store or burned from a computer to a CD or DVD.

On Thursday, readers of the popular blog Boing Boing complained that the songs on the Puretracks store use Windows Media DRM measures.

At issue

Digital rights advocates and observers of the music and movie industries have condemned what they feel is a restrictive DRM regime that takes control of content away from consumers and treats them as though they are thieves or potential criminals.

Copyright and DRM advocates say that without such restrictions, content makers would have little incentive to make music, movies or other materials available for people to play on their computers or other devices.

"If you hit their web page on a Mac … they tell you they use Windows Media and claim they're [incompatible] with Macs … Doesn't sound very DRM-free to me," Boing Boing editor Mark Frauenfelder wrote in a post to the blog Thursday after being alerted to the issue by readers.

"It appears that every single track at Puretracks is crippled with Windows DRM."

But Puretracks president and CEO Alistair Mitchell told CBC News Online that the complaints stem from a combination of factors that are causing confusion among the music store's users — particularly those visiting from the United States.

"We don't have the MP3 offering in the U.S.," Mitchell said. "It's only in Canada."

Access to the launch collection of 50,000 unlocked MP3s on Puretracksis restricted only to Canadian visitors whose location is identified by their Internet Protocol address, he said.

Mitchell said he suspects the complaints were being spread by U.S. bloggers and possibly other media south of the border, where visitors to the music store currently have access only to DRM-protected Windows Media or WMA format files.

Apple Macs unable to download songs

Asked about the notice that Mac users receive when they visit the site, Mitchell said it stems from a current inability of the Puretracks site to let users of Apple Inc.'s computers download songs from the music store.

"We're thrilled that Mac users want to use Puretracks. But what we've done — and we regret, of course — is we have had to advise them when they get to the site they can't download the files," Mitchell said.

The notice presented to Mac users reads, in part: "Our current music store uses Windows Media technology to play our music files. Unfortunately that means our songs are incompatible with your operating system. Furthermore, Apple's iTunes FairPlay system is currently not available to us for use with iPods."

Mitchell said the message is designed to warnpeople using Apple Mac computers so they don't spend time browsing the site and purchasing music, only to find at the end of the process that they can't download it.

According to Mitchell, the incompatibility stems from a component of the Puretracks site called the download manager, through which music bought online is transferred from the store to a customer's computer.

He said the download manager employs a Microsoft Corp. technology called ActiveX, which is incompatible with Macs.

"ActiveX and Macs don't mix," confirmed Joseph Dee, technology director of Calgary-based Critical Mass Inc. interactive services company.

Speaking from Critical Mass's Toronto office, Dee told CBC News Online that he was unfamiliar with how Puretracks manages downloads and whether they use ActiveX, but noted that Mac owners visiting any website using the Microsoft technology would encounter a problem.

"If you're going to a site that uses ActiveX, on a Mac it's not going to work," Dee said.

He noted that the technology, introduced in the mid-1990s when there weren't competing technologies that could be used to implement advanced features on websites, had fallen out of favour among web designers.

It haslargely been replaced by newer technologies such as Adobe Inc.'s Flash or a technique called Ajax, short for Asynchronous Javascript and Extensible Markup Language, he said.

Downloads identified as Windows Media files

Asked how the inability to play Puretracks' music files on Macs as identified in the notice on its site relates to an inability to download files, Mitchell said the language used was out of date.

"Now it needs to be updated to say we now have MP3s," he said, emphasizing that the message and the download problem are two separate issues.

But when CBC News Online tried to download MP3s from the Puretracks music store using the Firefox web browser, it found the files were identified as being in the Windows Media or WMA format.

Mitchell said that the files are, in fact, MP3s but can only be downloaded through an alternate download manager that Puretracks has implemented. Part of the workaround the company has developed is that the alternate download manager renames MP3 files as WMA files.

"It's still an MP3 but it's called a Windows Media file," Mitchell said, noting that people who download MP3s through the Firefox browser can try playing the file in Windows Media Player, which will notify the user that the file format does not match the way it is identified.

He also said that customers can change the filename extension to ".mp3" if they wish and transfer and play the files freely on any device.

CBC News Online confirmed Mitchell's claims in its tests. A check of the file properties clearly identified the files downloaded as MP3s.

All of the confusion over the new MP3 service is part of the growing pains typical to any new venture, Mitchell said.

"There's an improvement to be made there and it's going to be improved and fixed," Mitchell said.

He added that the company plans to have a change to the Firefox download naming issue in place by Friday, and intends to have a download option for Mac users within 30 to 60 days.