Music: Fans Mad at Anti-Piracy DRM

Fred Benenson spent a recent drizzly Saturday afternoon with friends in Manhattan wearing yellow hazmat suits. They were in front of the new Apple store on Fifth Avenue, distributing flyers and explaining to passersby why iTunes, Apple's online music store, "sucks." The target of their ire: a technology the recording and film industries call "Digital Rights Management." DRM, as it's known, is encoded onto downloadable digital content so that copyright owners can prevent piracy. But it also prevents people from transferring downloaded content as they might like. Since different companies use different DRM technologies, an iTunes-bought song can't be moved to a Zune , Microsoft's new answer to the iPod, or even e-mailed to a friend. Since the vast majority of online music is sold on iTunes, "Apple has a stranglehold," says Benenson, 23, a graduate student at New York University's interactive telecommunications program. "There are some musicians who I like who will only offer music on the iTunes store."

Now, an increasingly vocal grassroots resistance to DRM is cropping up. An anti-DRM campaign called "Defective by Design," which is organized by the Free Software Foundation , has 15,000 registered members; the Electronic Frontier Foundation argues that DRM places limits on "your ability to make lawful use of the music you purchase." Web sites like and have been launched "to protect individuals' right to use new digital technologies" and urge boycotts on DRM-tagged content. David Berlind, executive editor of tech trade journal ZDNet, coined his own term for DRM: "Content Restriction, Annulment and Protection." (Figure out the acronym).

As more people use iTunes, and its much smaller competitors, more DRM enters the marketplace. Digital downloads of individual songs are up 71 percent from a year ago, to 418.6 million tracks, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Apple reports that it has sold about 1.5 billion songs from iTunes. Still, with 70 million iPods on the street, that translates to roughly just over 20 iTunes downloads per iPod. In other words, people are still opting to fill them with music from CDs they already own or illegally-acquired songs.

Which is why critics say that DRM actually does little to prevent piracy: fans can get the same song they downloaded from iTunes free of DRM by walking to a local record store. (Sony tried to attach DRM to CDs last year, and a scandal erupted when the software on their discs opened up security holes and allowed in computer viruses.) These store-bought songs are what end up flying all over the Internet. "In six years of tracking piracy, we've never seen a statistical difference in piracy of a popular song that was released without DRM and a popular song that was released with DRM," says Eric Garland, CEO of the market research firm BigChampagne. The second-largest online music store, eMusic, has sold 90 million songs in the last three years (more, combined, than every other online retailer except for iTunes); none of them is encoded with DRM. "That was certainly a conscious decision and it's for a simple reason," says eMusic CEO David Packman. "That's what the customers want."

But content providers claim DRM is essential to protect the work of artists, labels and studios. A spokesman for Apple would only say that "we don't generally talk about FairPlay," the name of Apple's DRM. In a statement to NEWSWEEK, the Recording Industry Association of America called DRM technologies "no silver bullet, nor were they ever intended to be. They are one component of a larger effort to protect our works and give fans the experience they expect and deserve."

But does DRM give fans the experience they expect? Fans who buy a CD can assume that it will play on their Sony car stereos as well as their Panasonic sound systems at home. They cannot expect that a song that they purchase from iTunes will play on anything other than their computers or iPods, nor can they store it on an unlimited number of hard drives. Music lovers can burn the iTunes track onto a CD--but unless they're techno-savvy, the resulting file will be of inferior quality . Lawrence Lessig, founder of both Creative Commons and Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society, points out that DRMs don't expire even after copyright does. And he argues that DRM hampers amateur artists who would remix pre-existing content or even try to put a song into a home video. "DRM is the content industry trying to replicate the business model for the 20th century in the 21st century," he says.

Music industry observers agree that once the public catches on to the limits of DRM, it will either be abandoned or a dominant technology will emerge across all players; this is what happened when VHS beat out Betamax. "Give consumers a file that will play in any device and consumers will be willing to pay for it," says Steve Gordon, author of "The Future of the Music Business." Until then, they'll just have to settle for DRM-encoded music. No hazmat suit required.