DRM Increasingly Restricts What You Can Do with Your CDs, DVDs, and Downloads

2006 – This installment of our ongoing digital audio jukebox series will take a moment to deal with errata from past installments (things I mistakenly omitted or just flat out got wrong) and also follow a detour into my distaste for DRM-laden media.

JustOgg

First the errata. JustOgg does not actually offer playback of Ogg Vorbis files on a 68k Mac (see Free MP3 and Ogg Vorbis Software for Old Macs and the Classic Mac OS). Instead, using the Ogg Vorbis to AIFF/WAV converter will result in the appropriate format for playback on a 68k Mac. Of course, JustOgg cannot actually play AIFF/WAV files either, but an application such as SoundApp can.

MpegDec

I should note before there is further confusion: MpegDec continues to support playback of MP3s on 68k Macs without needing any further tomfoolery (see MpegDec: Play MP3s and Streaming Audio on 680×0 and Old PowerPC Macs).

On a related note, a reader recently reported the ability for MpegDec to properly play 160 kbps VBR MP3 files without skipping on his LC 475. I’m waiting to hear back about further details on his particular LC 475, but this 25 MHz 68LC040 powerhouse did the deed for him.

Occasionally, I have gotten higher bit rates to play without too much hassle, but MpegDec will commandeer the system’s resources. Thus a user will discover the user interface has become unresponsive until the track or playlist is done playing. A cooperative (not preemptive) multitasking 0S and 68k Motorola processor can only work so much magic.

If one doesn’t mind the ability to not pause, stop, quit, or otherwise interact with the computer while MP3 files are playing, then MpegDec is a little more flexible than I may have alluded to in past installments of this series. I should note the setup I used to test the reader’s assertion: PowerBook 520c, 25 MHz 68LC040 processor, 12 MB RAM, 140 MB hard drive, Mac OS 8.1 with AppleTalk off. MpegDec 3.1.1 44100 Hz, 166 kbps VBR MP3 – 2:22 long.

Not quite flawless, but the PowerBook was darn near close for a 12-year-old computer. Also, the user interface was not completely unresponsive; I was able to click the mouse a couple times and the pause function registered after a 5-6 second delay. Not so terrible after all.

I’m thinking a faster desktop hard drive, either SCSI or ATA, may fare even better. More RAM and possibly a less taxing OS (such as System 7.5.5 or 7.6.1) may have improved performance a little more. I’ll see what sort of further tests I can run and report back.

ProTools Free

As to importing audio CDs, a reader was happy to propose ProTools Free as a possibly excellent tool for the job. Obviously, ProTools is a very powerful tool – even the free version – but I have not had a chance to test the application. I’ll provide a link for those readers wanting to test it’s basic audio manipulation features. I encourage any feedback.

AppleSwitcher

Take my Macs away and call me a Windows user. Last outing I forgot to mention one of my favorite Mac, iPod, photography, movies, music, and everything else related websites – AppleSwitcher. Sure, we AppleSwitchers can be a little cranky sometimes, but Matt, the wonderful proprietor, has designed a nice new layout for the place over the last few months.

To further entice new people (not just immigrants from other Mac forums), Matt separated the normal forum from the “everyone have at it” forum while adding content such as tips, reviews, and tutorials.

Did I mention there is a page dedicated to public domain music? Currently the small (but nice) selection is dominated by old time jazz. I should have mentioned Matt’s place before; after all, he is a nice fellow who allows me to link gratuitously to Low End Mac content. I should have done the same when given the chance with the non-DRM Mac-friendly music article.

Other Sites

Some more sites deserve a quick mention, but there are too many to go into detail about. Let’s give a cursory overview. Simply browse the Web for individual artist’s and/or small label’s websites to find a nice selection of streaming or downloadable free audio (and video occasionally) as well as for pay content (no DRM, of course). A quick example would be Le Tigre World where I recently (late 2005 actually) purchased a digital download of Le Tigre by Le Tigre – a nice FLAC encoded version, which sounds practically identical to the CD version. Nice stuff.

Another good way to fill out a jukebox is with podcasts. Since most Macs don’t come with radio tuners, podcasts are a good way to have your own personally programmable selection of informative and/or entertaining recorded broadcasts. Some favorites of my own, (un)fortunately all tech related: bsdtalk, Cranky Geeks, Security Now!, This Week in Tech (TWiT), and The Tech Night Owl Live (some may also like Gene’s other podcast, the Paracast).

Yes, I’ve probably mentioned some of those sites before, but repetition is a grand idea.

Finally, I get to the bad stuff, the type of tech related news which always leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

DRM

Digital Rights Management (DRM) is not friendly to consumers, yet with every iteration the technologies seems to get more restrictive – certainly not less. I don’t want to bore everyone with the nitty gritty details, so I won’t. Instead, I’ll add my own personal pet peeves with DRM infected media (an ugly description, but I’m in one of those moods).

Also, not to leave everyone high and dry, I’ll link liberally to other sources that can explain the technologies and legal background better than I could ever hope to. Also, my reference to DRM will reflect a bias to digital audio, as befitting this series of articles.

Unfortunately, DRM is a nuisance for consumers and even content creators (read artists, not the suits who control the intellectual property) for a number of reasons. However, as little old me sees things, DRM creates two major problems for consumers:

  1. Criminalizing what should be – and indeed was in many cases – once considered to be fair use of legitimately purchased media. Believe me, examples will follow.
  2. Proprietary vendor lock in.

Both of these problems are deeply interwoven and deserve some attention.

This brings us to a little section I like to call, “Things that seem simple enough but are probably illegal (if not outright so)”. Let’s make a little game and guess if problem number 1, number 2, or both apply to each detail. Unfortunately, each point will seem a nuisance whether ultimately illegal or not.

  • Making backups of your DRM-laden media for personal use. A good example is making a copy of a DVD or CD for situations where the original media could be damaged. If anyone has young kids or others in their life prone to carelessness, I think they will appreciate the ability to not purchase the same movie or CD again and again. Unfortunately, there is a very good likelihood that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) precludes this act of “fair use”, at least when it comes to DVDs. A fairly recent article notes a possible direction to where backing up CDs will no longer be covered by fair use either. You’ve been warned if this latter revelation is indeed true.
  • Attempting to play your legally purchased DVD on your computer. If you use Linux or another alternative operating system, even this simple act is possibly illegal – or at least in digital copyright limbo. Cracking the DRM in the DVD format was necessary, at least at one time, simply to enable the basic function of watching a DVD on certain operating systems. Stupid, yes. Hard to crack, apparently not. Thank you to those intrepid open source programmers.
  • Microsoft Plays for SurePlaying your Microsoft DRM-protected PlaysForSure music on your iPod, Mac, Linux box, BSD box, etc. Oh wait, you can’t play them on a non-Windows OS because Windows Media Player, which is needed to decrypt the DRM, is not available on anything but Windows. Also, Apple didn’t see fit to pay Microsoft for a license suitable for the iPod. For portable options be on the lookout for the PlaysForSure logo. Good grief and good luck.
  • Playing your FairPlay DRM-protected iTMS tracks in anything besides iTunes, an iPod, or a few select Motorola phones (okay you can burn the tracks to CD, but wait until the next part to see why this option is terrible). Like the PlaysForSure Microsoft dominated shenanigans, iTMS store downloads are only suitable for playback on a select few devices – the family of iPod digital music players, a couple Motorola cell phones, and computers with iTunes installed. You can also burn copies onto an audio CD (as far as I know, there are no CD players which will play FairPlay AAC tracks). To be fair, the iPod family of products feature a compelling mix between ease of use and slick design. I am a proud owner of a 4G iPod (only a handful of songs are from the iTMS, whereas the vast majority of the 20 GB is filled with MP3 files). Okay, I’m sure a couple dozen non-DRM AAC and Apple Lossless files have made their way onto my iPod as well. I cannot comment on the quality or value of the Motorola cell phones, for I have not used any iTunes compatible models.

Burning an audio CD with iTMS purchased music is certainly of dubious value. Since you have to make an audio CD when transferring iTMS tracks, the value of the lossy format is lost. Indeed, the process converts the MP4 files to large AIFF files. Obviously, without an increase in quality, a CD that could have held several dozen compressed songs can only hold maybe a dozen or so now. Cue sarcasm. Hurray for fighting DRM in the pursuit of fair use. End sarcasm.

Using a computer with iTunes installed seems simple enough if you use Mac OS X or later versions of Windows. However, I tend to use a large variety of Macs running the classic Mac OS (no iTMS-enable versions of iTunes), yet few audio codecs are not available to me, except notably these DRM-infected codecs.

Likewise, Linux distributions are similarly equipped in their compatibility with audio codecs, except again for those which use DRM. Audio laden with DRM is blocking my enjoyment of music from a multitude of music services.

Let’s be honest: Without Apple’s FairPlay, we’re left with a normal AAC file. Similarly, without Microsoft’s PlaysForSure, we’re left with a WMA file. The basic technology is already present to allow other operating systems to play those audio codecs, but DRM is keeping everything out of reach.

Workarounds

There certainly are ways to access these DRM services or files with unapproved solutions. I’ll focus on Apple’s FairPlay here, although I’m sure there are similar techniques available for Microsoft’s PlaysForSure. (How would I ever know, since I don’t use Windows, hence no PlaysForSure for me.)

The easiest – but certainly not ideal – method is to simply use iTunes’ burn to CD capability of iTMS tracks. Simply import the tracks from their new AIFF format on the burned CD, and you can encode into clean AAC, MP3, Ogg Vorbis, etc. You shouldn’t even need iTunes for the task once the CD has been made – any audio encoding application such suffice. Of course, there is a loss of quality when you go from MP4 (AAC) to AIFF back to a lossy format.

Other methods include stripping the DRM from the file altogether without conversion. Unfortunately, these methods are where you run into DMCA problems, and this may very well be an illegal action. Even if it isn’t illegal, the process is often blocked by Apple when they update iTunes (only for those intrepid hackers to get back to work – repeat ad nauseam).

The more media is a hassle to transfer from device to device, the better the opportunity the various corporations have to sell consumers the same product over and over.

Notice, stripping the DRM away is not being sought in order to share music with anyone and everyone in the world. Instead, people are simply seeking a way to listen to their music (or watch their movies) in a manner, place, and time decided by themselves and not Apple, Microsoft, or some other corporation.

I could go on about converting DVD video for playback on portable video players, trying to save downloaded DRM video to an unapproved format, or anything else related to manipulating media in a consumer-oriented manner. Unfortunately, it doesn’t change the difficulties, both legal and operational, inherent in this process. The more media is a hassle to transfer from device to device, the better the opportunity the various corporations have to sell consumers the same product over and over (e.g., buy your season of your favorite television show on DVD, only to have to pay again to watch it on your portable player).

I’ll continue to wean myself from any application of DRM that leans towards overbearing.

My answer to the problem is simple. I’ll continue to wean myself from any application of DRM that leans towards overbearing. For those readers interested in downloading music and also weary of DRM, please try one of the sites I mentioned or one of the numerous others which exist but a Google search away.

DRM Is Depressing

Also, I look with interest to see how Sun’s proposal for open source DRM goes over with content creators, distributors, and consumers. Perhaps a single unified DRM technology being conjured up by a concerted effort from all interested parties – not just corporations with vested commercial interests – will help swing the pendulum back to fair use.

Or perhaps the DMCA revisions being proposed in Congress will make debate a moot point as the original flawed legislature is expanded, not curtailed.

Then again, maybe our hard working legislative branch will take a look at the best aspects of the interoperability laws being proposed in France. Unfortunately, the USA will probably end up incorporating the worst aspects instead.

Sorry for the downer, folks, but ultimately, we as consumers and citizens can make a difference. If you feel strongly about this issue, please act accordingly. Potential bad news not with standing, please have a great weekend and remember to smile.

Keywords: #drm #fairplay #playsforsure #oggvorbis

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searchword: drmrestrictions

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