September 15, 2006
In yesterday’s announcement of the new Zune media player and Zune Marketplace, Microsoft (and many press reports) glossed over a remarkable misfeature that should demonstrate once and for all how DRM and the DMCA harm legitimate customers.
Microsoft’s Zune will not play protected Windows Media Audio and Video purchased or “rented” from Napster 2.0, Rhapsody, Yahoo! Unlimited, Movielink, Cinemanow, or any other online media service. That’s right — the media that Microsoft promised would Play For Sure doesn’t even play on Microsoft’s own device. Buried in footnote 4 of its press release, Microsoft clearly states that “Zune software can import audio files in unprotected WMA, MP3, AAC; photos in JPEG; and videos in WMV, MPEG-4, H.264″ — protected WMA and WMV (not to mention iTunes DRMed AAC) are conspicuously absent.
This is a stark example of DRM under the DMCA giving customers a raw deal. Buying DRMed media means you’re locked into the limited array of devices that vendors say you can use. You have to rebuy your preexisting DRMed media collection if you want to use it on the Zune. And you’ll have to do that over and over again whenever a new, incompatible device with innovative features blows existing players out of the water. Access to MP3s and non-DRMed formats creates the only bridge between these isolated islands of limited devices.
The real culprit here is the DMCA — but for that bad law, customers could legally convert DRMed files into whatever format they want, and tech creators would be free to reverse engineer the DRM to create compatible devices. Even though those acts have traditionally been and still are non-infringing, the DMCA makes them illegal and stifles fair use, innovation, and competition.
May this be a lesson to those who mistakenly laud certain DRM as “open” and offering customers “freedom of choice” simply because it is widely-licensed. With DRM under the DMCA, nothing truly plays for sure, regardless of whether you’re purchasing from Apple, Microsoft, or anyone else.
[Postscript: In an interview with Engadget, Microsoft Zune architect J Allard pointed out that Zune has sufficient video format support, in part because there's "Lots of DVD ripping software out there that encodes to those formats, so the most popular formats out there, whether it's MPEG-4 or H.264, we'll support those." Gee, he isn't suggesting that his business model benefits from customers using tools like DeCSS or Handbrake to evade the DRM on DVDs, right? Especially since Microsoft is furiously trying to squash the FairUse4WM tool, that would seem rather hypocritical.]