Blown To Bits


Wednesday, April 23rd, 2008 by Hal Abelson



Yesterday, Microsoft delivered the coup de gr?¢ce to MSN Music DRM. May it rest in peace.

Digital Rights Management (DRM) is the practice of distributing digital content together with control programs that restrict how it can be used. For example, a publisher can distribute music that can played only a designated number of times, or only on designated computers, or that must periodically “phone home” over the Internet for reauthorization and relicensing. Content providers, notably the recording industry, embraced DRM as a way to cope with unauthorized downloading and file sharing.

Blown to Bits argues that DRM schemes are ineffective and anti-competitive and in the long run a bad deal for publishers and customers alike. If you buy music that must contact a license server before it can be played, then the music isn’t really yours ‚Äì if the license server goes away, ‚Äúyour music‚Äù becomes a useless wad of encrypted bits.More...

That drawback of DRM was driven home yesterday when Microsoft announced that it would be shutting down the license servers for MSN Music, a DRM scheme introduced in 2004 to the fanfare announcement that this would “finally bring digital music to the masses.” Music tracks purchased from the MSN Music store can be played only on computers licensed for that track. You can have at most five computers licensed for a track at once. If you get a sixth computer, you must contact the MSN server to de-authorize one of the five and license the new one. A “new computer” here means not only a new physical machine: if you upgrade your operating system, you need new licenses for all the music tracks.

Microsoft stopped selling new MSN Music in 2006, when it introduced Zune Marketplace. In an email yesterday from the General Manager of MSN Entertainment Services, purchasers of MSN Music tracks learned that the license server will be shutting down on August 31. After then they’ll be stuck: no more licensing new machines ‚Äì replace a computer, or upgrade an operating system after the summer, and their music can’t be transferred to it.

The anti-consumer nature of DRM is becoming increasingly apparent, and publishers are starting to move away from it. And yet, as described in the book, the desire to shore up DRM gave birth to the innovation-hostile anticircumvention provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and new DRM-inspired legislative proposals are still very much alive on Capitol Hill. What can consumers do when the content they purchased phones home, but no one answers? Perhaps they should have it phone Congress.

2 Responses to “MSN Music RIP”

  1. Blown to Bits » Blog Archive » Yahoo joins the “strand our DRM customers” game Says:

    […] April (see MSN Music RIP) I blogged about Microsoft’s decision to shut down the license¬† servers for MSN Music at the […]

  2. Blown to Bits » Blog Archive » Signs of a Move Towards Balance? (Part 2 of 2) Says:

    […] of consumers. This follows on the heels, as we previously reported, of Microsoft (April 23, 2008, MSN Music RIP) and Yahoo! (July 26, 2008, Yahoo joins the ‚Äústrand our DRM customers‚Äù game). As of October 9, […]