Two weeks ago, I wrote that I strip the DRM off of music purchased from the iTunes Store – more on that in a minute. Many people wrote in asking about DRM – what it is, how it works, and what means for them. “DRM” stands for “Digital Rights Management.” Many people question who’s rights are being managed, and therefore say DRM stands for “Digital Restrictions Management.”

Almost all media purchased from the iTunes Store has some form of DRM. Phil Schiller says “We’re using a DRM technology under the hood called FairPlay. It’s a DRM technology used by iTunes and QuickTime at the system level.” FairPlay restricts how you can play back, copy, and duplicate music and movies purchased from the iTunes store in two different ways.

For music, according to Apple, songs are FairPlay-encrypted 128 kbit/s AAC streams in a .mp4 wrapper. These files have an .m4p extension. To be clear, regular AAC files, like those you might make yourself in iTunes or Garageband are not encrypted by default; Apple adds the FairPlay encryption to the AAC files they sell. Apple has been very hesitant to license it’s FairPlay technology to other hardware or software companies. In fact, the only way to play back FairPlay encrypted files, such as music purchased from the iTunes Store, is on an iPod, computers with iTunes or Quicktime installed, and a few iTunes-compatible cell phones.

There are further restrictions on FairPlay- encrypted iTunes music. Wikipedia sums them up:
– The protected track may be copied to any number of iPod portable music players, or iTunes-compatible cell phones. – The protected track may be played on up to five authorized computers simultaneously. – The protected track may be copied to a standard Audio CD any number of times. – A particular playlist within iTunes containing a protected track can be copied to a CD only up to seven times (originally ten times) before the playlist must be changed.

FairPlay does not affect the ability of the file itself to be copied. It only manages the decryption of the audio content. In other words, you can copy a FairPlay file to an unlimited amount of computers – but only five of those computers can be authorized to play back FairPlay files at a time. To date, you can’t play back FairPlay protected music on any portable device besides the iPod, and the few iTunes-compatible cell phones.

It is very easy strip away the DRM from an iTunes-purchased song by simply burning the song or album to CD, and then reimporting the song as an MP3 or AAC file. I always do this. I’ve chosen to import music as an MP3 file, not an ACC file, even though AAC files offer MP3-quality sound (or better) in smaller-than-MP3 files. Most devices will play back AAC files, but some do not, and MP3 is a more-or-less universal file format. If you do this right away, all the album art and song times should properly import into your iTunes library.

Very few of my purchased songs still have the FairPlay DRM attached to them. I’ve never uploaded music purchased from the iTunes store to any online file-sharing scheme. I occasionally burn a CD and give it to a friend to listen to – more on that below.
Movies and TV shows purchased from the iTunes store have even stricter DRM. You can’t burn them to disk and reimport them in a different file format – they are locked .MP4 files. You can only burn them to a CD or DVD as a data file – you can’t purchase a TV show or movie from iTunes, burn it to DVD, and play it back in your home DVD player. Using iTunes, you can copy a purchased movie or TV show to an iPod video, and watch the program on the iPod video screen. Or, you can connect the iPod video to a television, and see the purchased TV show or movie on the TV screen. You can also watch iTunes-purchased media on up to five authorized Macs.

Many people despise Apple’s FairPlay restrictions. There are good practice, moral, and legal reasons for this. This movement calls DRM-restricted media, and devices that play back DRM-restricted media “defective by design.” I agree with many of their arguments. Personally, I think we have gone to extremes to prevent fair-use copying of all types of media,- but that’s a subject for a future soapbox.

There are practical arguments against DRM. For example, if you purchase media from a company, and the company decides how you access, backup, and use that media via some form of DRM, what happens to the media if the company goes out of business, changes ownership, or simply changes it’s mind about who gets access to it’s media? What happens is, customers who bought the media get locked out without the media they thought they owned.

You may have heard how Microsoft’s Zune player will not play music purchased from the MSN music site. In fact, Microsoft’s Zune won’t play Microsoft’s “Plays For Sure” music. People who bought lots of “Plays for Sure” encrypted music don’t get to “play it at all” on their new Zune. I guess they can buy it all over again from the Zune music store.

If an artist chooses to sell their art, and a person wants to own it, I believe the person should buy it, and pay the price the artist is asking. Period. I like the ease of use and convenience of the iTunes store. I like that I can download an album and burn it to CD, without all the packaging that comes with the CD (unless it’s a top-favorite artist – then I buy the CD for the artwork along with the high-quality disk.) I don’t like the DRM. If Apple ever moved to lock up music from the iTunes Store like the movies are locked up, I would be very unlikely to buy music from the iTunes Store.

Apple is in a tough place – trapped between customers who want easy, unfettered access to their legally purchased music, and the recording industry, which has multiple interests to protect, and has also seen declining sales. Many people have exploited internet data-sharing services, to the point where I can understand the fear and paranoia of the recording industry.

DRM leads to many interesting and well-intentioned debates. I’ll write more in a future soapbox. I’ll leave you with a quote from Bob Dylan, from his recent Rolling Stone interview, on recorded music technology today, versus the records and recording techniques of the past:

“CDs are small. There’s no stature to it. I remember when that Napster guy came up across, it was like, ‘Everybody’s gettin’ music for free.’ I was like, ‘Well, why not? It ain’t worth nothing anyway.’”

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