MP3 Doesn’t Have DRM–Or Does It?

One of the great steps forward for fair use and first-sale rights came last year, when iTunes finally stopped selling DRM-encased tracks and started selling DRM-free MP3 (or its direct, DRM-free, AAC equivalent).

“DRM-free MP3″ is redundant, right? The MP3 format doesn’t allow for DRM, right?

Right…at least not now, at least not directly.

A Digression

DRM gets a bad rap. Actual Digital Rights Management can–or could–be valuable, in situations (which pretty much every library is familiar with) where access to digital resources is based on the user’s rights. Most of the time, in practice, those rights are understood indirectly: If you have access to a campus network for an appropriate definition of “access,” for example, you’re assumed to have rights to the databases the library licenses–and similarly for public libraries, if you’re either standing at a library computer or you can demonstrate (over the internet) that you’re a library patron. But the rights management could be more complex; you could have a digital signature that identified all the ways you might have rights to use various digital resources.

But most of the time, when we talk about DRM–especially as it relates to copyright–we’re talking about what I call Digital Restrictions Management: Basically, reducing or eliminating your fair use and first sale rights in digital resources that you think you’ve purchased.

The funny thing about that kind of DRM is that it has never done much to stop The Bad Guys, those who are out to pirate copyright material. They either have other methods to get access to non-DRM resources or they break the DRM. DRM mostly damages the innocent, people who want to device-shift or maybe use legitimate excerpts from something. So it’s hard not to cheer the move away from DRM in music…noting that audio CDs never had DRM. (Yes, there were silver discs with DRM; no, they weren’t legitimate Audio CDs. The Red Book, the key license for all audio CDs, does not allow for DRM.)

End of digression.

“At least not directly?”

Yep. Read this story in TechCrunch.

Seems that the tracks you buy from iTunes–or from LaLa or Walmart–have personal information embedded in the MP3. The post shows an example.

Who cares? Well, read the quoted section.

If you’re really paranoid, consider the possibilities: Could iTunes scan your library and delete any files that don’t have the right username?

Seems unlikely, but…

Maybe no more unlikely than, say, Amazon deleting an ebook from your Kindle…

Updated 4/23/10, to remove idiot error in post title. Odd that nobody called me on that!

2 Responses to “MP3 Doesn’t Have DRM–Or Does It?”

  1. Ivan Chew Says:

    I can imagine some one arguing that the line between Fair Use and Misuse is thin. That said, someone once told me that Copyright punishes those who choose to follow the law. Which is what you’re saying about DRM restricting Fair Use rather than being a foolproof method of preventing IP misuse.

  2. walt Says:

    Ivan: Big Media–particularly RIAA–has typically avoided that thin line by simply asserting that Fair Use doesn’t exist–either that there’s no such law (explicitly false, in the U.S. at least) or that Fair Use is only a defense for infringement, not an exception to copyright (also explicitly false as the law is worded, but that’s never bothered Big Media).


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