DRM leaves owners without a tune

People want their music without strings attached. And, finally, record companies are beginning to get the picture.

On Aug. 10, the BBC reported that Universal Music Group – a subsidiary of Vivendi and the largest music company in the world – said it was going to begin selling thousands of its artists’ song DRM-free.

DRM, or digital rights management, is extra data placed on a downloaded music file that prevents you from copying it or transferring it to an unauthorized device. Record companies love it, music fans hate it, and hackers have broken every single version of it out there.

Over the past months, DRM has been on the decline, partly from consumer outrage, partly because of the sheer futility of trying to put locks on digital media. In May, EMI announced it was going to sell one million songs from its catalog DRM-free via media distributor MusicNet.

The praise, however, doesn’t extend to iTunes. When Apple announced that they were going to sell DRM-free music over their service, which is now the nation’s third-largest music retailer, fans praised the move.

It was short-lived, however. Soon after, news Web site Ars Technica announced that those "DRM-free" files actually were embedded with personal information about the user who downloaded it, including e-mail addresses, the BBC reported. This data could be used to track down the original owners of files that turn up on file sharing networks.

DRM isn’t popular for the same reason piracy is. Companies are trying to charge too much money for something that doesn’t cost much for them to produce anymore.

Over the past 20 years, technology has advanced so much that the cost of the computer in your bedroom, for the same processing power, would have cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars in 1987. The price of producing a CD was more expensive as well, $13 to $18 was justified for what you were getting.

Make music easy to access and use, and competitively priced, and maybe the industry can woo consumers away from Limewire, BitTorrent or the host of other file-sharing programs. Having the RIAA quit suing their customers for sharing as few as ten music files over the Internet would help with public relations as well.

Today, downloading music costs record companies and their distributors pennies on the dollar per song, yet they still charge upwards of $10-$12 per album, mostly to support their bloated, overgrown companies.

They are going to have to realize that they’ve tried to slay the piracy beast, and have failed. Now they will have to compromise. Record companies need to understand that the days of living high on the hog are over, and they need to adapt to a new force in their market that is set to drive prices down.

It’s possible to compete with free. Most people want to get their music honestly as long as it’s priced fairly, and with what they receive they have the freedom to do with it what they please.

Wooten, opinion editor, can be reached at [email protected]

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