Digital Rights Management’s Victims: The Customers

From The Day the Music Died, I learned that Microsoft is pulling the plug on the servers used for verification of their MSN Music service. Even Wired repots that Microsoft is pulling support for MSN Music DRM.

So what happens on August 31, 2008? On that day, Microsoft will turn off the servers that they maintain for the sole purpose of validating that the songs that people have already “purchased” through MSN Music are still theirs to play. Those people (hereafter “the victims”) will not notice the change right away. The victims will only notice it when they purchase a new computer, or when they upgrade the operating system on their current computer, or when the hard drive in their computer dies and needs to be rebuilt/reinstalled. At that point — transferring the music files they have “purchased” to another drive or a new computer — the Microsoft music player running on the victim’s PC (like iTunes, but all Microsoft-y instead of Apple-y) will make a call to Microsoft’s validation servers to verify that the music files were legitimately purchased. This call will fail, since the servers are not responding, since Microsoft has intentionally turned them off. The Microsoft music player will then conclude, incorrectly but steadfastly, that the music files were downloaded illegally and that the victim is a filthy pirate, and it will refuse to play them. In this case, the left hand knows exactly what the right hand is doing: they’re both giving you the finger.

One of the arguments against so-called digital rights management is that if the software developer goes under, you no longer have access to your supposedly purchased products. As a counter argument, it has been suggested that companies such as Microsoft, Apple, and Valve won’t be going away anytime soon.

And we can see that it doesn’t matter if they are still around. You are paying them and hoping that they don’t just decide one day to cut you off. In this case, Microsoft has given up the old and replaced it with the new, but hasn’t given you a way to transfer what you already paid for.

What should you do if you want to keep your music? As Sony advised its users to do when it closed down Sony Connect, you can burn CDs of your purchased tracks and re-rip them. Of course, this degrades sound quality because it forces the music through the encoding process twice.

When the only legitimate sources for music and software are saddled with DRM, is it any surprise that people search for a better product from illegitimate sources? I know that the people selling me music, movies, and software would love for me to pay them again and again for the same product, but where is my incentive to do so? What value do I receive in return for being a paying customer, doing things the right way, especially when illegal sources are providing a superior experience for me? And dealing with the hassles of DRM would make so much more sense if it actually prevented such illegal sources from existing. Since it doesn’t, it sounds like it is more about control of the customer than anything else.

Will we see a similar thing happen with Valve’s Steam? There are already anecdotal reports that people have been wrongfully banned from the service, cutting them off from access to the games they paid for. Will Valve come out with Steam 2.0, offer up the same products on the new service, and then cut off the old service with no way for existing customers to transfer their existing purchases? I doubt it, but then, you would think Microsoft wouldn’t have done it either. Regardless, the customer finds out who is in charge of his/her machine soon enough.

The EFF sent an open letter to Microsoft about this issue.

While this announcement has directly affected MSN Music customers, users of other Microsoft products (particularly current and prospective Zune customers) are deeply concerned as well. Your customers are forced to ask, “If Microsoft treats its MSN Music customers so shabbily, is there any reason to suppose that it will treat other customers any better?”

World famous chef Gordon Ramsay commented about British chefs who expect praise and awards for just showing up, “but don’t give enough attention to anything to do with the customer. But it’s really all about the customer. No one should ever forget that, no matter how great their sauces are.” Why should it be any different for any other industry?

[tags] digital rights management, msn music, business, video games, steam, valve [/tags]

1 comment to Digital Rights Management’s Victims: The Customers

  • PooBear

    Of course Microsoft need to handle their old customer’s music better than this, their behaviour is obviously wrong. Yet, what is the biggest music portal on the net with a shocking 50million customers? iTunes

    All nice and DRM’d up.

    So does this mean “normal” people don’t care about DRM ?

    Microsoft have been very silly, they should have found a way to just allow the old music to continue to work, running a server is not expensive. They could surely have released a patch to remove the DRM from these old tracks.

    DRM going out of date should not be a problem for any decent company. They just need the foresight to plan for disasters and make sure DRM unlocking patches can be released or a seperate server can be maintained.